​5 days in Tennessee with Uncle Nearest

Introduction

‘The best whiskey maker the world never knew’ is the rather bold moniker bestowed with an air of surety upon the subject of a relatively new American whiskey brand hailing from Lynchburg, Tennessee. It would also suggest that those behind it are privy to information we don’t have and uncovered something of historical importance that demands your attention.

It was 6 months ago when the British Bourbon Society first received a call from the Uncle Nearest team and with it an invitation to meet with their founder and Chief Historian, Fawn Weaver over breakfast during a scheduled visit to London. Admittedly, at this point very little was known by any of us about the brand, the back story or the people behind it but something was pulling at us to learn more. Fawn proceeded to bring the story to life with an informative and passionate delivery that stuck with us long after we said our goodbyes. We knew right then that this wasn’t just another name plucked from historical obscurity with a tentative link to whiskey production. This story had heart, substance, relevance and value not just to those that have uncovered it, but to the family and descendants of whom it relates. It was a story that needed to be told, we all needed to hear it, Fawn Weaver is the one to tell it. 

In her own words Fawn is the ‘keeper of the story’ of Nathan ‘Uncle Nearest’ Green, entrusted by his descendants to shine a light on his legacy and is a responsibility she takes very seriously. Her inspiration took root in a 2016 article written by Clay Risen for the New York Times for Black History Month which does a great job at explaining who Nathan Green was through his involvement with whiskey distilling and Jack Daniels. This article was the first time the story of Nathan Green was mentioned publicly since a 1967 biography titled ‘Jack Daniels Legacy’ by Ben A. Green.

Fawn subsequently took it upon herself to build upon the momentum of that article to uncover the unequivocal truth and consign it to the archives of historical fact for past generations to be honoured and future generations to be proud of.

In the 2 years since embarking on her journey, Fawn has achieved remarkable things through hard work and dogged determination, painstakingly reviewing mountains of documentation acquired from public records, assisted by a dedicated team of super sleuths.  Their endeavours eventually led to Jack Daniels publicly acknowledging the truth in their own publications, marketing material, distillery tours and now the visitors centre that commemorates Nathan Green.  He is now not only accepted as being an integral part of the Jack Daniels legacy, but heralded for his importance within American black history and with that, cementing his title, albeit humbly as ‘the best whiskey maker the world never knew’.

The British Bourbon Society continued to correspond with the Uncle Nearest team over the coming months, collaborating on tastings in London and Manchester and were later afforded the unique opportunity to select the very first single barrel release from the brand.  The group assembled in London and selected out of 6 cask samples, an 11 year old 112.9 proof Tennessee whiskey with all 118 bottles selling out in record time. Not only is this some of the best Tennessee whiskey we have ever had the pleasure to taste, the group were also given a unique label incorporating the British Bourbon Society logo and amending the standard ‘Uncle Nearest’ print to ‘Nathan Green’, commemorating the given name of Uncle Nearest exclusively for this bottling and future British Bourbon Society selections.

With our transatlantic relationship flourishing, there came another call from Fawn herself extending an invitation to visit Tennessee and join the team for the ‘Founders Tour’ in Lynchburg, Tennessee. After at least 4 whole pico-seconds of deliberation, plans were made and our bags were packed. It was agreed between us that we would grab the opportunity with both hands and spend a couple of days in Nashville first, ‘acclimatising’ and exploring the Music City with as much as we could cram in 48 hours.

We had a good idea of what our agenda should entail with whiskey, beer, BBQ and ‘honky-tonk’ (though none of us really knew what that was) underpinning the framework for our highbrow itinerary.

This is how it went down y’all…….

Day 1 - Friday 9th of November 2018

Words by Ed Rosie

Before I get into the nitty gritty of our trip to Nashville, I want to start by saying what an absolute privilege it was to be invited to visit America courtesy of our friends at Uncle Nearest. 

I appreciate I probably sound like a bit of broken record when I say this, but when we started the British Bourbon Society we dreamt of one day venturing across the pond just so we could gallivant around distilleries, taking in the sights of the local area and generally just having ourselves an amazing time. This trip was that dream with the opportunities we were afforded, the food we devoured, the whiskies we sampled and the people we met along the way making for a truly unforgettable experience. 

Incidentally, as I write this incredibly overdue blog post I’m sipping on a glass of Jack Daniel’s Master Distillers Series No. 3, (Lem Tolley release). In this moment I can’t think of a more fitting bottle to imbibe with, other than perhaps the BBS Uncle Nearest single barrel. Reason being, this bottle was gifted to each of us by Fawn and Keith Weaver whilst we were guests of theirs at Tolley House – Lem’s old residence! I love how whisky can invoke memories like that.

Day 1 - 9th of November 2018.

I arrived at Heathrow airport for 10:30am. I know this now because I just looked back through the photos on my phone where I captured a stupid photo of my incredibly excited face for posterity.

I located Andrew Watson so that like ‘proper grown men’ we could check our bags in together. At this point he’d already pressed the panic button as he feared an overweight baggage situation and was hopeful I could assist if he exceeded the already very generous quota. Thankfully he was right on the nose, 23.00kg and able to pass through without issue. Now feels like the right time to say that Watson had an incredible number of samples with him. If you’ve ever seen the Netflix documentary, ‘Icarus’ it was like a mobile version of the doping lab that the Russian’s were operating at the Olympics. Hundreds and thousands of samples. Perhaps millions. There were however no complaints from me.

We sailed through security. In fact, we didn’t, I did, but Watson got the full examination and much to both our surprise the security officer couldn’t give a hoot about 10 million samples of whiskey, they were in a clear see-through bag after all. Like two very well-travelled English gentlemen we headed straight to the great British institution and obligatory pit stop, Weatherspoon’s, where we proceeded to get stuck in to the usual junk and waited on the rest of the boys. Once Ed King, Chris Neville and Mark Latimour had joined us we now had around 50 million samples between us and attempt to disguise the sound of rattling glass in our hand luggage with packets of Haribo.  

After lining our stomachs, we headed to the plane where en-route Mark excitedly told us how he’d turned down the opportunity for an upgrade just so he could sit with us in ‘cattle class’ and join in with the in-flight banter. Wise choice indeed Mark and appreciate the personal sacrifice. 

Now, picture this: You’re in a really good whiskey bar with a bunch of your mates and you’ve spotted some absolute belters from the top shelf and are now racking up a massive bill. This was that situation, however there was no eye-watering bill at the end of it and the bar was in economy class at 35,000 feet. We were passing around some ridiculous samples of whiskey and getting excited about what was to come. Then, like proper old men… we fell asleep.

After landing in Nashville we jumped in an Uber and headed to our Air B&B. This is a good time to explain how awesome Andrew Watson had been at organising this whole trip, for weeks leading up to us arriving he’d been messaging his contacts to arrange a few meet ups with local bourbon enthusiasts who we would spend time with and show us the real meaning of ‘Southern hospitality’. Top work Watson, all your efforts were greatly appreciated. 

A friend of Watson’s, Jared, arrived at the house to pick us up shortly we arrived as Watson and I had been invited to visit a pretty special place, but I’ll get onto that in a bit. Jared is an absolute legend by the way, not only is he the founder and skilled craftsmen at ‘BootHill Blades’ (check them out), but he’s also an avid bourbon fan and all-round lovely bloke. In the weeks leading up to the visit a few of us had been chatting on Instagram and Andrew and I had managed to get an invite to @abushong’s home bar, while the rest of the guys went off to get watered elsewhere. We jumped in the pickup truck to head to @abushong’s home, (who we had never met) with our knife making friend Jared, (who we had never met). Sticklers for safety, we put on our seatbelts and drove into the night.

 Now, I’ll do my best to explain this, but it will never, ever, ever do it justice, so just trust me when I say this was an outrageously cool experience.

We pulled up at @abushong’s place, a palatial home in a secluded suburban neighbourhood and were warmly greeted by him and his wife. After a short chat we were led up the stairs to a room in the house that I’m sure for a regular family would have been simply a bedroom, however in this instance it was the home bar (bedroom) of my dreams. My jaw hit the floor when we walked in. Whilst I was resetting my jaw I looked to Andrew and saw his jaw was also completely dislodged and that is when I knew we were somewhere truly special. I’d seen snippets of this place on Instagram and figured it was in an actual bar in some up-market swanky part of a city… never in my life did I imagine it to basically be a converted bedroom that housed some of the best bottles of American whiskey ever to grace the earth. Honestly, I don’t say that lightly, there were bottles in here that I didn’t ever know existed. In fact, nobody knew they existed because @abushong had commissioned them so unless he’d told you about the 139 bottles of Willett he took delivery of that were specially bottled to celebrate the birth of his daughter, chances are you had no idea. 

Speaking of @abushong, I must say, what an absolute gent, he’s is another one of those ridiculously kind and generous people that the whiskey scene has a habit of introducing you to. We’d only ever exchanged a few messages on Instagram before, but he welcomed Andrew and I like a good old friend and was incredibly generous with his collection to the point where I found myself apologising repeatedly for the drinks he was offering me and I obliging with. 

I could list off the bottles we tried, but words on a page will never do it justice so check out these photos and videos, they do a way better job showing off the collection.

After a very pleasant couple of hours with Jared and @abushong we were sent packing with a couple of beers and a very handy electrolyte drink to aid the sore head that was sure to follow in the morning. We headed back into town and met the rest of the group at a local restaurant and bar for some food before turning in for the night. 

What an intro to Nashville. 


DAY 2


Words by Andrew Watson

 Saturday 10th November

It’s the first full day of our Tennessee odyssey and I’m psyched. You may have (or will) read  in this blog post about how I quite like to organise a few things. Don’t believe everything you read…… I LOVE to organise a LOT of things because quite frankly, it’s not every day you find yourself this far from home with an opportunity to soak up this much Americana in 4 days. The USA is a big part of our lives through our Bourbon endeavours and as such, I have a penchant for colloquial delights, viewed through a very British lens of fear and excitement in equal measures.

‘Get in the car’, I barked at Mark and Chris that first morning, actually being British, it was probably more like ‘chaps, your transportation awaits’ as we bundled into our waiting Uber to take us to ‘Biscuit Love Gulch’. That’s the actual name of the restaurant by the way and not some quirky moniker for a prog-rock band. I found this place using my acutely honed skills of completing Google and badgering locals to affirm that this will be the first stop on our epicurean adventure. 

Admittedly, I had not anticipated either the weather or the popularity of this establishment in my learned selection when we pulled up outside to join a 200 strong line of people equally keen to brave the sub-zero conditions for breakfast. I wasn’t going anywhere though, what a line like this tells me is that I was validated and it’s the place to be, we may freeze, we might not make it to the end, but we can rest assured that we gave life a damn good go. Besides, Jared had reliably informed me to order ‘off menu’ which is a locals way of saying, show off to those around you that you’ve done your research and can utter words met by gasps for an item so exclusive, it can’t be ordered by mere mortals.

‘I’ll have the Dirty Princess’ I said, half expecting Jared to have wound me up and a slap was incoming from the waitress. ‘Certainly Sir’ was the response, without a bat of an eyelid to my thankful disappointment. The ‘Dirty Princess’ if you ever make it there is a savoury scone (biscuit) with a piece of buttermilk fried chicken soaked in hot sauce with white gravy and a fried egg on top. It wasn’t just good, it was transcendental good. I wanted to cry for everyone that hadn’t had it. In fact, I’ll be strong for you, but you should cry, seriously.

A brisk, 3 mile walk into the heart of the music city followed our gluttonous beginnings and replenished calorie tokens for the day ahead. We were heading to the Johnny Cash museum, it seemed like as good a place as any to start our intake of city culture. The trouble with good ideas are that everyone has them and this place was filled to the brim with tourists eager to tick a box when in reality, all they really want to do wasparty with a Stetson on in one of the many, many joints on Music Row. We couldn’t though, it was only 11am and our breakfast hadn’t digested yet. Nobody told the stag and hen do’s though, they were spilling out of every door, live country rock blaring out with a plastic cup of Budweiser in hand. This is a fun place to go. Nash-Vegas is what they call it now apparently and I can see why.  

Whilst the attentions of the visiting party posse’s were focused on their plastic cups, one hand aloft with consistent-enough-to-be-annoyingoutbursts of ‘whoo’ and ‘yeah’ reverberating around the streets, we turned our attentions to an unconventional mode of transport. London has ‘Boris’ bikes, big hulking great contraptions designed to be resilient and ugly in equal measures. They’re a great idea and fun to ride, but you don’t feel any semblance of cool on one. Nashville has gone one better, they have electric scooters strewn everywhere and operated by a company called ‘Bird’. We had no destination but we knew we needed to hire them. These are the definition of cool….surely? 

After a few technical difficulties, we were up and running, somehow foiling their app requirement for US residents and away we went! Honestly, it was some of the best fun I’ve had in ages, racing (these things fly) down the road towards the only logical place we could think of, ‘Bearded Iris’ brewery. I couldn’t help contemplate that at that moment, I was involved in possibly the most hipster situation I have ever been a part of. 5 guys, on electric scooters (one beard), travelling to a craft brewery on electric scooters. Our carbon conscience was clear, unlike our judgement as my scooter ran out of battery half way there, most likely due to the half hour of childlike satisfaction I got from scooting around a car park. Nevertheless, I managed to stutter the rest of the way feeling less cool and more pathetic to finally park outside with the others safe in the knowledge that we would be getting an Uber back.

Bearded Iris brewery is situated on an innocuous trading estate (aren’t they all?) nestled opposite disused train tracks presumably to add that extra edge of ‘derelict’ stereotypical of the craft scene. The beer was fresh and delicious, and we sipped on hazy, juicy IPA’s with the sun on our faces contemplating our next move. I had arranged for us to meet up with a local bourbon buddy named Clay, again who I’d never actually met before but felt completely comfortable (and presumably he also) to spend a Saturday night with. I wanted Barbecue (sorry Chris) and Tennessee has some of the best in the world. I wasn’t going to pass up on this carnivorous opportunity to get stuck into slow smoked meats! Martin’s was the place to go according to Clay, assuring us in his Southern drawl when we met up, rushing through the pleasantries over a drink at a nearby bar and went in. Martin’s is huge and easy to see why it’s a BBQ mecca round these parts. It’s the kind of scene you’d want really, wooden tables filled with clientele gorging themselves silly with ribs, brisket, burnt ends and whatever else is possible to roast falling out of smiling, sauce smothered faces. This was my happy place.

Clay ordered for us on the advice of our sharp-tongued, quip-heavy waiter, disappointing Chris once again with a steaming plate of pencil shavings and air (even the beans had meat in). I felt sorry for Chris and the moral dilemma he was in as a practicing vegetarian, watching us delight in roasted bovine while he tucked into his pencil shavings. ‘Well, at least he’s got a beer in front of him’, I thought as I pulled apart the remnants of delicious meat clinging to my pork rib. On our way out, we were taken to where the magic happens and shown the industrial sized smokers, again piling further misery on poor Chris.  We settled up and left, thankful to be walking again to readjust our waistbands for the ‘honky tonk’ that was about to follow. Music Row by this time was absolutely heaving but Clay knew where to go. Robert’s Western World was the place to hear the best authentic live music so we piled in  and were surprised to find a table by the bar that became our home for the next 3 hours. It was enormous fun but some of us by this time were feeling the strain of the preceding shenanigans, coupled with jet lag, so said their goodbyes and went home. I stayed out for a few more hours with Clay, Ed King and Chris Neville listening to country rock cover bands until our bodies could take no more. We were done, we’d hit our limit, country road, take me home…..via Princes chicken wings.

You may ask how we could even contemplate eating after our smorgasbord of food not long prior? I’ll refer you to my original comment about fitting as much in 4 days as possible, this was THE best place to get hot chicken in Nashville, I was going. Our 3am Uber driver took us, bleary-eyed into an area of Nashville you would only ever consider going if your mind wasn’t firing on all cylinders. ‘It ain’t no country club’, Clay said as he shared the fact that 3 people had been shot there a month before. I felt safe in the company of a local though and knew there was a risk going to almost anywhere nowadays. Our Uber was followed by the police for a few blocks too, presumably to escort these ‘fish out of water’ tourists and not because our driver was suspected of anything. 

Princes was as basic as they come, a diner style layout with booths and a Perspex window at the back to order, again presumably to considerately prevent sauce spatter on their customers and not to deflect stray bullets. We ordered our meals from the jovial ladies cooking up a storm and chowed down on the spiciest, most delicious fired chicken I’ve ever had. The journey was worth it.

Bed finally beckoned and we said our goodbyes to Clay for his incredible hospitality. I’d spoken to Clay a lot through bourbon circles for the last 2 years but this was the first time we had met in person. He, and everyone else we met are testament to this community and the incredible people it curates. This is why I love bourbon.


DAY 3


Sunday 11th November:

Words by Mark Latimour

Whether by a stroke of pure sensible luck or genius, Mr Rosie and I had headed home early from the previous night’s festivities.  In all honesty it was probably just because the jet lag had got to us.  Either way it worked out in our favour as we were up and about before the others.  This wasn’t surprising as we think we heard them make it back to the AirBnB around 3:30am.  The early start enabled us to take advantage of Uber Eats for an early morning McDonald’s breakfast – not bad given that the next breakfast would be hours away once the others had emerged from their slumber. 

After Ed and I had sorted ourselves out it occurred to us we ought to check on Chris who was sleeping downstairs – I can’t recall now if it was to avoid the snoring or to protect us from it.  As we went downstairs to check on Chris we heard the slow movement towards the bathroom of someone with a clear hangover.  “Are you alright mate?” …. Then out of the bathroom we heard a sound that, to be honest, was sort of hard to place.  It was clearly something leaving the body, rapidly, but lord only knows by what means.  The combination of jet lag, Tennessee food not designed for vegans and a late night out had clearly hit Chris.   

Food was obviously high on the agenda and Andrew thought we could probably visit one of his bourbon friends on the way to Lynchburg.  There was some consternation about how we would get there – an 80 mile journey from Nashville.  The combined space taken up by 5 lads with luggage was too much for a single taxi – even a maxi-Uber could be overwhelmed.  In addition, there are no Ubers in Lynchburg so getting back could be an issue.  We left this dilemma in Rosie and Watson’s capable hands and turned our minds to our stomachs.  

The nearest restaurant was something called “Waffle House” (what we subsequently learned is a bit of an institution for the ‘worse for wear’ of the South due to its 24 hour diner operation).  The Waffle House was about a mile and half away and like good Brits, we thought we best walk it to get some fresh air.  What we hadn’t factored in is that Americans don’t walk – which means they don’t have pavements.  After about 200 yards the pavement ran out and we found ourselves walking on the shoulder-less roads getting beeped at by passing cars.  We were clearly fish out of water.  

Waffle House turned out to be a strategic choice – not because the food was good – it was average – but because the wait stuff immediately clocked that Chris was not living his best life that day and decided to harass him.  There’s something charming and yet thoroughly annoying about how friendly the Southerners can be when you just want to have a quiet meal to contemplate the night before and the day after.  We survived the meal….not without having to feign interest in some of the local chat.  

Now you might think that jet lag and a lack of sleep might prevent certain activities: operating heavy machinery, driving a vehicle and shooting.  It didn’t – Chris and I jumped in an Uber and headed to the shooting range whilst Rosie, King and Watson headed off to mooch around the Grand ‘ol Opry.  The firing range was brilliant fun and without any fuss Chris and I were able to rent 3 9mm pistols and purchase 250 rounds for an hour or so of fun.  By the time we had finished Watson had arranged our afternoon’s activities, a visit to one of his bourbon friends’ houses on the way to Lynchburg.  Chris and I jumped in an Uber to meet them there.  

@graytful19 and his wife warmly welcomed us into their home. Watson knew him from a bourbon group and he had a bottle of PVW15 and WLW17 that he wanted to open with us.  It was an incredibly kind gesture – but the kindness didn’t end there.  He then opened up his entire stash to us to try as we wanted.  Some rare Four Roses store picks including a Veterans Day pick, Bookers 25th Anniversary and the rarest of the rare: California Gold.  The California Gold was actually sealed and Rosie said to @graytful19 that we couldn’t try an unopened bottle.  Mark quickly removed the wax and said “Its open now”.  After a few hours and some of the finest whiskies around we had to depart as our ride to Lynchburg was here.  Fawn Weaver had arranged for two of the Uncle Nearest Brand Ambassadors to pick us up and to bring us to Lynchburg.  

Having been well hydrated through the hospitality of @graytful19, we were grateful when Richie and Stephen stopped off at a Mexican restaurant on the trip down.  There we ate suitably large dishes of Mexican food accompanied by, in Watson and my case, the largest Michelada beer I’ve ever seen (basically a Bloody Mary made with beer) – they must have been about 1 litre each! I slept the rest of the way down to Lynchburg and didn’t wake until we arrived at Tolley House.  

Tolley House is the bed and breakfast owned by Fawn and Keith Weaver as part of the Uncle Nearest empire.  It’s a fantastic old building about two miles outside of the centre of Lynchburg and whilst restoration work continues, it was sufficiently ready for us to stay there.  Well, three of us.  Ed King and I would need to stay in the centre of Lynchburg.  That evening we were met by Fawn and Keith and we shared a few drinks and started to look at some of the historical records that Fawn found whilst researching the Nathan Green story.  One of the most fascinating finds was found on their own property, an original barrel stencil for “Jack Daniel” whiskey – before the apostrophe “s” was added.  

After a really engaging evening looking through some of the letters, books and records that Fawn had found, we retired to our rooms ready for the Uncle Nearest Founder’s tour that would kick off the next morning with a trip to the George Dickel “Cascade Hollow” Distillery.  


DAY 4


Monday 12 November: The Founders Tour (Part 1)

 Words by Mark Latimour

Well, it was raining.  Not just a little, it was pouring down.  Ed King and I awoke and showered, ready for our 8:30am pickup in order to startthe day with a 9:30am tour of the George Dickel Distillery.  Unfortunately the rain put a stop to that because the tour had a lot of outdoor components.  Instead we were able to relax and we would instead begin at 11am with a trip to the Lynchburg cemetery and then lunch at thefabled Miss Mary BoBo’s house.  


Lynchburg Cemetery sits on the hill in the centre of town and is home to the graves of some of the most famous names in Tennessee distilling – Jack Daniel, Dan Call etc.  Fawn began the tour by showing us the graves of Lynchburg’s most famous residents.  Poignantly. we then descended the hill and around the corner to the “coloured peoples” cemetery (as it was at the time).  This is the site of the memorial that Fawn has had installed for Nathan “Nearest” Green.    The memorial isn’t his actual grave – no one knows where it is – but it’s a fitting tribute to someone who has such an important place in the town’s history.  

 

We headed into the centre of town to Miss Mary BoBo’s House.  Our guide, former Jack Daniels Head of Operations and now Uncle Nearest distiller, Sherrie Moore pointed out that her family used to own and live there with the gift shop replacing her old bedroom! Miss Mary BoBo’s is a ‘Lynchburg institution’ which is a term used often though never lightly.  Guests sit in an ornate dining room with our groupsufficiently large enough to warrant our own room rather than sharing with others. We were appointed a “host” who talks you through theculinary smorgasbord waiting for you to devour accompanied by a historical rhetoric.  Having Sherrie with us meant that the host was relieved of a lot of her duties as Sherrie was pretty familiar with the house.   The meal was amazing, fried chicken, fried okra, mac & cheese, meatloaf, beans.  Sensational stuff, well, except for Chris, who is vegetarian and for whom the South does not cater well (the beans had meat in).  We were all ready to explode when they brought out the amazing fudge tart.  Needless to say we rolled rather than skipped out of Miss Mary BoBo’s and headed out to the Dan Call farm. 

 

The Dan Call farm was bought by Fawn when she learned (through Sherrie) it was on the market and is the original home of Jack Daniels.  Dan was a preacher who distilled whiskey with the help of his slave, Nathan Green.  Jack Daniel went into partnership with Dan and Nathan taught Jack how to distil.  Eventually the preaching would mean Dan couldn’t continue to distil, so Jack and Nathan took over the operation.  The Dan Call farm is the site of the original spring that the water used in Jack Daniels was taken from and is set on some wonderful land on the outskirts of Lynchburg.  We were greeted at the farm by the working dogs who proceeded to herd us like sheep around the place.  The farm building is being restored by Fawn into a “members club” for those involved with Uncle Nearest and their whiskey industry brethren.  The work is far from complete but is encouraging to see some of the amazing features taking shape including the original peeling wallpaper, protected by Perspex that reveals drawings that Dan and Jack did on the walls.  We then toured the grounds of the farm and walked….okay drove – this is America after all, towards the site of the original ‘Old No. 7’ distillery.  Situated in the rolling hills of the farm the site is in a fantastic spot – nothing remains of the structure, but it’s clear from the foundations and spring nearby what was here before.  Apparently the spot is well known enough with collectors that they would sneak onto the farm and steal parts of pipe from the original distillery spring.  Fawn has installed security measures to preserve the history of the place.  

 

Following the educational tour of the Dan Call farm we mounted up….okay, got in Sherrie’s minivan and drove towards the Sand Creek Farm – the home of the Uncle Nearest Distillery.  The Sand Creek Farm was bought by Fawn to be the site of the new distillery, but also to be a complete Uncle Nearest / Tennessee Whiskey experience.  It is intended to go beyond merely being a distillery tour and gift shop, but rather an experience of everything local including a venue for events and weddings.  The distillery and site is still being developed and will be ready in a few years but that didn’t stop us touring  the premises and seeing the quite bizarre Tennessee Walking Horses.  The horses rear legs are longer than their front and so they wear special shoes which allows them to walk in a quite unusual fashion.  This style is what they are judged on in competitions.   We Finished up back in the visitors centre area with some signature Uncle Nearest cocktails and was at this point that Fawn shared with the BBS founders that they would be getting the pressing plates that were used for the “Nathan Green” single barrel edition that BBS obtained.  Needless to say they were thrilled.  It was a fantastic end to an amazing day.  We learned so much about the history of Lynchburg and Tennessee whiskey and the fundamental role of Nathan ‘Uncle Nearest’ Green.  

The day, however hadn’t ended there – we were hungry and Fawn is a lady who can pull some strings.  Although it was past the usual closing time, she managed to call ahead to get the best BBQ place in Lynchburg to stay open for us.  We rolled into Barrel House BBQ slightly late, but they were no less welcoming.  This is classic Tennessee BBQ and is featured as having one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches in the State.  It’s called “grilled cheese on crack” and it’s basically a massive heap of pulled pork with a thin slice of grilled cheese on it.  It was incredible and we all left super satisfied.  We retired back to Tolley house to share a few whiskies and some stories of the day.  

Write here… 


 DAY 5

 


5 days in Tennessee with @unclenearest

Words by Chris Neville

Tuesday 13th November: The Founders Tour (Part 2)

And so, the last day of our trip to Tennessee. I woke refreshed and ready for the day ahead, having had an amazing night’s sleep on the ridiculously huge bed in Tolley House. We got our stuff together and packed up ready for the day ahead.

Sherrie pulled up outside in the people carrier and off we went. We had two distillery trips planned, Dickel and Jack Daniel’s. For me this would be my first trip to a working distillery of any kind so I was beyond excited. I know a couple of the guys have definitely visited distilleries in Scotland and maybe Ireland but they too were popping their American distillery cherries and the excitement was evident all round.

The George Dickel distillery is located in Cascade Hollow (or Cascade Holla if you don’t want your accent to stand out), close to Tullahoma which was around 25 minutes’ drive from where we were staying in Lynchburg. Lynchburg itself is quite sparsely populated and as we got closer to the distillery, we became surrounded by more and more greenery. The site is surrounded on both sides by beautiful, lush forests that rise up hills. We pulled in to the car park and decanted straight into the gift shop / visitor centre. I have to say that the range of merchandise on offer was very impressive. Dickel really manage to capture the spirit of Tennessee and the USA with their bold and bright designs. Their webstore has some of what we saw but the range inside the gift shop was much more expansive. After grabbing a bagel, we were greeted by our tour guide.

The distillery itself is on the opposite side of the road from the gift shop, you have to cross a bridge with a stream running underneath and are greeted with worrying signs alerting you of venomous snakes in the area. As you get closer, the aroma of freshly boiled grains fills your nostrils. The different shades of brick on various parts of the building suggests expansion over the years and the top layers of metal cladding surrounding the still and upper floors definitely shows a priority of functionality over style.

As we enter the building, we are led to the mash tuns where we are told that the grain is weighed and added by hand. There are two and they hold around 10,000 gallons each which is roughly 38,000 litres. It’s then on to the 20,000 gallon capacity, open top fermentation vessels where it’s fermented for several days until it’s approximately 8% alcohol. It’s then distilled in their three storey still ready for charcoal mellowing

Looking around, there is a noticeable lack of computer screens to be seen. Dickel are very much a distillery who still like to make their whiskey in a traditional way. The guys working in the distillery are friendly and happy to answer our questions but they work hard to bring us our whiskey. An example of this is how they charcoal mellow their distillate. The sugar maple is burned in on site and then apparently shovelled into bags by hand which are carried to the tanks by the workers. The tanks for the charcoal mellowing are huge, they are filled around 15 feet deep with the sugar maple charcoal and at the bottom is a perforated metal plate lined over with a woollen sheet. The distillate is then trickled through this which can take over a week to complete. They also chill the liquid at this point apparently because Dickel himself always preferred to do this process in the winter. After this point, the whiskey is ready to be proofed down and put into barrels. 

We were then taken to their publicly accessible barrel store where we were allowed to take a couple of pictures. Their main warehouses and bottling lines are a little further away in the hills and not accessible to the public. We were told that most of the barrels are shipped over to Scotland when they are spent and re-used to age the parent company, Diageo’s Scotch whiskies.

We were then taken through the range, trying the White Whisky, Number 8, Number 12, Barrel Select and Tabasco Finished. I was impressed with the clean taste of their white dog and I really enjoyed their Tabasco Finish. For me, it’s a cool idea that works great as something to whack in a bloody Mary. The full-circle barrel concept where ex-tabasco-ex-bourbon barrels are reused is a novel idea. The actual Tennessee whiskey they make is solid and made me feel a little guilty for not having more on my shelf.
When I weighed up what I had seen regarding the old school methods still employed by the distillery, I was left wondering whether Diageo see Dickel more as a way of obtaining a good supply of barrels to age their Scotch rather than a valuable distillery in its own right. If so, that’s pretty sad because they have a great distillery with a lot of heritage and a passionate workforce pumping out some really good juice.

I suppose we had got a little bit carried away with ourselves in the gift shop, especially Ed King who I think bought one of everything because we suddenly realised that we had to be over at Jack Daniel’s for our tour in impossible time. Back to the people carrier it was.

We had our JD tour booked for around midday. A couple of days earlier, Fawn had arranged for the Master Distiller, Jeff Arnett to come and meet us while we were in town. I was quite in awe of the casual way Fawn had arranged that. It really showed how well she had built up Uncle Nearest’s relationship with Jack Daniel’s (more about that later) and I suspected that Sherrie, as ex Director of Operations at Jack Daniel’s had played some part in that too. We travelled back the 20 or so miles from Tullahoma to Lynchburg and Sherrie pulled us into the car park.

Immediately the difference in the two distilleries was obvious, judging by the sheer scale of the place. In fact, I’m not sure we could have picked two more contrasting major distilleries had we deliberately tried to. We jumped out of the car and I hurried to the desk to confirm our booking. I think we were around 15 minutes late but they kindly gave us the option to join half way through or wait another 15 minutes for the next tour, which is what we chose to do. As I turned back to look around the visitor’s centre and inspect some of the historic relics they had stored behind glass cases, I saw the wall they have dedicated to the memory of Nathan ‘Nearest’ Green and acknowledging that research and hard work that Fawn has put into preserving his memory.

Such is the scale of the Jack Daniel’s distillery site that your tour begins with a bus ride, albeit a brief one. Our tour guide was Matt, a Lynchburg native who had spent some of his earlier life in other countries due to his dad’s job in the military. Matt was quite new to the role but had done his time in the warehouse. He did a cracking job and was full of genuine enthusiasm and passion that made the tour even more enjoyable.

We started out at the yard where we were told just two guys, Darren and Tracey are responsible for making the charcoal used in their charcoal mellowing process and were shown a time-lapse video of it in action.

The tour focused also on the historical aspects of the distillery, taking us to the original spring where Jack Daniel got his water supply and also to his office which was still very well preserved and includes the infamous safe that allegedly led to his death (he kicked it and got gangrene). We saw historic fire engines including a pristine REO Speedwagon that belonged to the distillery from around a century ago. Despite the grand scale of it all, there is a rustic feel to this distillery, which is amplified by the red bricks of the main building and the stream from the spring running through the site.

Whilst Matt was a very knowledgeable guide, it was amazing to be taking this tour with Sherrie who had work experience in many aspects of the distillery operations stretching back quite some time. Sherrie would casually point out family members on some of the historic photos hung on the walls. It really showed the rich whiskey history that Sherrie has but also the fact that Jack Daniels has always been very much a family-oriented business which I think is amazing. As we passed Jeff Arnett’s office, Sherrie gave him a wave and he came out to greet his long-time friend and ex-colleague.

We were taken to inspect the fermenting vessels and Matt encouraged us to get an up-close whiff of the aroma, warning us that the CO2 could have a powerful effect on our noses. I got a bit too close and my eyes were watering. It felt as though I’d eaten a large lump of English mustard. We were taken through to see the charcoal mellowing vats that were again, much larger than those in the Dickel distillery. From then it was on to the still and this was where the investment in technology was more prevalent in comparison to Dickel. Of course, by making the same type of whiskey as Dickel, the processes were very similar but on much larger scale. Whereas Dickel would rely on their experience for their fermentation process, Jack Daniel’s would mitigate risk by having a large control room with monitors and automated controls ready to make necessary adjustments at the drop of a hat.

We went through to their bottling line where workers were hand labelling their single barrel whiskey and then through to the tasting room. As part of the Angel’s Share Tour, we were tasting their premium range. My personal favourite was their barrel proof offering which I think holds up against any other cask strength whiskey in the same price range. I remember tons of brown sugar on the finish which I was surprised and delighted to get from a whiskey in a range where I normally have banana as the dominant note.

After the tasting, we were escorted across over to the Motlow House building to meet Jeff Arnett. To have the opportunity to talk whiskey with Jeff was an unreal experience. Here we had the Master Distiller of the world’s biggest whiskey brand ready to answer any questions we had and we had a fair few. Jeff talked about his history working for Jack Daniel’s, working with Sherrie and gave us some insight into the operational workings. It’s fair to say that Jeff has been responsible for the biggest range expansion in the brand’s history and he talked about how he likes to encourage a culture of experimentation and exploration. This was backed up by some of the offerings they had in the gift shop which included things like smoked hickory Jack Daniels for example. As for the age-old JD question that seems to pop up in BBS more than any other, Jeff said he saw Tennessee whiskey as a sub-category of bourbon so that puts that one to bed as far as I am concerned! Eventually we thanked Jeff for his time and made our way back to the vehicle.

We met up with Fawn at the main square in Lynchburg and rolled into a pizza restaurant for a last chance of sustenance. Time was turning against us and as we calculated how long it would take us to get to Nashville airport, check in and board, we decided to get back in the cars and make our way there. We pulled up outside the airport, grabbed our bags and said our goodbyes to Fawn and Sherrie.

We’ve been back home for a few months now but the trip gifted us all with fond memories I’m sure we will never forget. As we’ve split the writing duties up, I’ve not seen what the other guys have wrote but I’m sure they would all agree that the hospitality we were shown throughout our trip was overwhelming. It’s clear that the team Uncle Nearest have recruited are the very best around. Their knowledge and passion is second to none and this shone through in how our itinerary was managed. Everything was perfect. Thanks very much to Fawn, Keith, Sherrie, Richie, Steven, Clay, Jared, Ashton and everyone else that made our time in Tennessee so special and to my British Bourbon brothers who I shared this amazing experience, cheers!

I’m going on a trip to the US, what should I buy?

Given that bourbon is a US product and there’s a crippling premium added to a lot of American whiskey imported to the UK, it’s a fair assumption that on a trip to the US, there are a lot of bargains to be had. There are also a whole host of brands, bottles and limited releases that are either not distributed in the UK or only available for an even more offensive premium at stores that take on the non-insubstantial cost of importing small numbers of bottles after buying at retail in the US themselves.

As such, a question asked at least once a fortnight goes something like: ‘I’m travelling to the US next week, what bottle should I pick up?’

There follows a brief — certainly not extensive — guide to bottles that are generally available in US liquor stores but not in the UK, based on what I’ve seen on the 15 or so trips to Chicago, Houston, Austin and New York I’ve taken in the last year. All price estimates are before local sales tax is applied, and they are in no particular order.

Old Forester 1920 ‘Prohibition Style’ Bourbon

Not available in the UK via official distribution channels.

Probably the most common answer to the question at hand, OF1920 (as it’s otherwise known) is a rich, tasty, full-bodied, high proof (115/57.5%) bourbon that almost absurdly readily available across the US. It should cost somewhere between $50–60 and is — in this writer’s humble opinion — probably the best value bourbon on the market, and certainly the best thing Old Forester put out despite not being the most difficult to find or most expensive.

Henry McKenna Bottled-in-Bond 10 Year Single Barrel

Not available in the UK via official distribution channels.

A Bottled-in-Bond (BiB) bourbon is one that comes with a certain set of quality guarantees: at least four years old, from a single ‘season’ at a single distillery, aged in a bonded warehouse (regulated and supervised by the US government) and bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV). There aren’t many BiB bourbons out there with 10 year age statements, and definitely not many with a price tag of around $30.

E.H. Taylor, Jr range

Available in the UK but much more affordable in the US.

One of Ameican whiskey’s great conundrums is why Buffalo Trace’s E.H. Taylor’s range is so absurdly expensive in the UK and Europe. Aside from limited releases (such as the much vaunted Four Grain, that was awarded world’s best whisky by Jim Murray) the core range consists of three expressions[1], with typical US/UK prices in parentheses:

  • Small Batch ($40/£95)
  • Single Barrel ($60/£95)
  • Straight Rye ($70/£95)

Not least the oddest thing is that the pricing in the UK doesn’t seem to scale at all, with all expressions generally costing about the same at retail despite there being a huge variation in the US.

Nobody should be paying £95 for a $40 bourbon, so if you dig the Buffalo Trace mash bill #1 (their core, low-rye recipe) and you’ve never been able to dig deep enough to drop £95 pound on the big yellow EHT tube, then a small batch or single barrel is a steal in the US (and the rye is still a bargain).

Rebel Yell 10 Year Old Single Barrel

Available in the UK, but rare.

A fairly common sight on shelves in US liquor stores at around $60–70 and a delicious smooth and sweet wheated bourbon, it’s recently become available in limited quantities in the UK at a fairly decent price (£70 ish), but it’s worth picking up for what amounts to a decent discount and easy availability.

There is reportedly quite a bit of variance between barrels, but I still think this one is worth a pickup.

Barrell Bourbon

Not available in the UK via official distribution channels.

Barrell are non-distilling producers, buying bourbon (and rye, rum and single malt, now) from various distillers, blending and bottling in batches. Every batch is completely different, and not all are to everyone’s tastes, but there are some gems in there (#011 is a stunner). They’re not cheap at $70–90 a bottle, but they’re widely available and largely a curiosity worth seeking out in my experience. 

Store picks

Unavailable in the UK.

A common sight in most decent liquor stores in the US, store picks are single barrel selections made from distilleries/producers bottled especially for the store. It’s certainly not a guarantee that all store picks are great, but what is generally true is that:

  1. They’re not that much more expensive than the regular release
  2. They are — if nothing else — interesting and something you won’t be able to taste at home

The most common store picks I’ve seen are Four Roses Single Barrels, Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve, Eagle Rare, Knob Creek, 1792, High West and Elijah Craig, with an honourable mention for Belle Meade whose single barrels are generally superb and I’ve seen all over the place.

You’ll also see a bunch of store picks of distillers local to the store you’re in: so in Chicago there’ll be FEW and Koval; in Seattle you’ll get Westland; in NYC, Hudson; and so on.

I’ve yet to have a poor Wild Turkey or Four Roses single barrel, so if you see one, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick it up.

Local or limited releases

Difficult/impossible to find in the UK, for the curious.

Odds are fairly heavily stacked against you in terms of finding any of the big-ticket limited releases on the shelf (BTAC, Van Winkle, Four Roses LEs, etc) — I’d argue you’ve a better chance of coming across these in the UK to be honest — but particularly for local distilleries, there’s a decent chance you’ll come across some things that only get wide releases in their home state.

If you’re in Texas, you’ll likely find the excellent Balcones Texas Blue Corn Bourbon on shelves, in Chicago you may find FEW’s Single Malt or their cask strength releases more widely available.

While craft distilleries may not be for everyone, I’ve enjoyed J. Henry & Son’sin Wisconsin, Herman Marshall in Texas, M.B. Roland from Kentucky and Leopold Bros. in Colorado… ask quality retailers for recommendations, try as much as you can.

What not to buy

One of the strangest things in the bourbon world (beyond the bizarre E.H. Taylor pricing) is that all forms of Blanton’s are more readily available and better priced in the UK (and most of the rest of the world) than in the US, so only a fool would waste suitcase space on one of these.

Almost every bourbon on the bottom (or lower middle) shelf — Buffalo Trace, Evan Williams, Wild Turkey 101, Elijah Craig Small Batch, Four Roses Small Batch, Makers Mark, etc — is pretty well priced in the UK. Sure, you’ll save yourself a few pounds buying in dollars (and at the very bottom end, where prices are in the low to mid teens, it’s almost ridiculous) but when you’ve travelled half way around the world and have limited space to mule bourbon in a suitcase home, I don’t think that buying from this selection is a particularly smart way to spend your money.

There are some bottom shelf bourbons only available in the US that are tremendous value — like Heaven Hill BiB or Green Label, only available in Kentucky for circa $10 — and are delicious, but again, I don’t really think it’s the best way to spend your money unless you’re on a very strict budget or you’re just curious to try it.

Most of all, pricing is all over the place in US liquor stores. Two stores next door to each other may price even fairly common bottles quite differently, and when it comes to the high end, you’ll almost certainly see bottles on shelves for way over retail price — even ones that aren’t that hard to come by or limited in availability. It’s a bizarre practice, but it’s worth being aware of the MSRP of bottles as it’s much easier than you might think to end up paying pretty much the same for a bottle in the US than you would in the UK.

[1] There is also an uncut and unfiltered barrel proof version that’s regularly produced but very difficult to find compared to the three listed here.

Words by Jordan Harper

US whiskey at The Whisky Show: standing tall, but standing still

The Van Winkles were at The Whisky Show this year!

I repeat: the Van Winkles were at The Whisky Show this year!

They weren’t the best US kit there though. They weren’t even the best US kit on their table.

That being said, as I trawled through the show bottle list, feeling, in the words of Blackadder “as excited as a very excited person who’s got a special reason to feel excited”, those Van Winkles stood out as the US headline act. Particularly since they weren’t flagged with a Dream Dram marker. They were open for all to taste.

This, I felt, marked a clear progression in how UK whisky festival attitudes had shifted. Where once the focus had been scotch, scotch, and more scotch, with a few token bourbons tucked in the corner like some embarrassing cousin, the presence of Pappy demonstrated that Britain was a country where the best of the US could stand up proudly beside Caledonia’s finest.

There was more cause for West Atlantic cheer as I drifted through the stands on the opening day. The Buffalo Trace Antique Collection was in fine fettle; Eagle Rare has improved out of recognition in the last year; Weller is very nearly as good as 2016’s was, and considerably more of it has been bottled. Stagg, which for the last few years has been overbalanced by brutish alcohol, seems to have reined in the booze and ramped up the flavour to fire (nearly) on all cylinders again. (And the same can be said for its often-unruly younger sibling; 2017 is a very good Stagg Jnr vintage.)

Other tables were just as exciting. The single barrel Russell’s Reserve rye on the Wild Turkey stand was probably my rye of the show – and yes, that includes Handy. Smooth Ambler had a five year old rye they had distilled themselves that was also superb, and festival newcomers King’s County were showing strongly too. (Though I still think they’re far too expensive.)

The standout table though was Balcones.

Not so much for their official offerings, though True Blue 100 and their standard Single Malt are excellent, and my soft spot for Brimstone grows softer every year. Where they really moved ahead of the pack was with the real-enthusiasts-only pours stashed under the counter. There was a wheated bourbon that was decent, if not earth-shattering, but the other four were magnificent.

A high-rye (seriously high – 39%) bourbon that I’d take over Stagg. A 100% rye that had Wellsy senior in raptures. (Made with Texan rye too – I didn’t even realise it could grow there.) And two single malts.

Such single malts! The first had done 40 months in ex-Four Roses casks. 40 months sounds like nothing, but by Balcones standards it’s ancient, and the result was phenomenal. Like a late-teen or early-twenties Speysider that had been put on steroids and had a V12 engine installed. Utterly roaring with tropical fruit complexity; bitter over-oaking a non-issue thanks to refill, rather than virgin, casks.

The second was even better, and inspired by distiller Jared Himstedt’s love of malts like Glendronach. Aged entirely in virgin French oak, the result was an opulent, spicy, fruitcakey glassful of sheer hedonism. A single barrel only available at the distillery itself. It was my father’s pick of the whole festival – and he’s a man who has been a scotch malt devotee since the seventies. All I can say is that the folk down in Waco don’t know how lucky they are.

American whiskies tend to show very well at whisk(e)y festivals. Tasted among a crowd their size and intensity gives them a natural edge when met with a hard-worked and embattled palate. Whilst my “pour of the show” came from elsewhere, the lion’s share of the most memorable overall stands tended to carry a US accent. What’s more, with about sixty expressions available, not including the “unofficials”, I can’t recall a broader selection open for enthusiasts to taste.

So far, so good. As always, however, there is a “but”.

I missed Westland and Corsair. If that seems like an odd nit to pick, having just attested to a biggest-ever selection, it isn’t. The reason I missed them particularly was the diversity they brought to last year’s Team America. Westland with their elegant and individual trio of malts, Corsair with their “you’ve-never-tasted-anything-like-this-before” joie de vivre. (Pardon my French.) 

Looking down my list, there really weren’t many new faces for 2017. King’s County seem to be the only one (do correct me if I’m mistaken) and whilst their whiskey is delicious, it doesn’t pack sufficient USP to fill the void left by Corsair and Westland.

What’s more, I think there’s room for some of the tables to broaden their offering a little. The Brown-Forman stand, in particular, missed a trick I feel, by presenting only a fairly basic range of JD and Woodford Reserve bottles. The Whisky Show is a chance for them to push the generally-overlooked Woodford Master’s Collection slightly, for example. Not to mention Old Forester, which many enthusiasts would love to see more of in the UK, and which didn’t have a presence whatsoever.

I realise that the overarching purpose of The Whisky Show is for The Whisky Exchange to sell bottles. And there’s no short-term benefit of presenting whiskey which consumers cannot immediately buy. But right now there is a surge in Britain’s interest in, and thirst for, American whiskey. Numerous brands are actively looking for UK distributors, and there is a loud clamouring (not least from the British Bourbon Society) for more of the interesting stuff to be shipped over. We can pretty much guarantee that we would drink it all.

Tasting those two exquisite Balcones malts, as well as the terrific high-rye bourbon, was soured slightly by the knowledge that there was no way for me to purchase them. As wonderful as such tables as Wild Turkey and Buffalo Trace were, they didn’t really offer anything that I hadn’t tried before. (Except for that Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, and I couldn’t buy that either.)

I realise that the show isn’t just for me. I realise that the majority of consumers don’t taste as many US whiskeys as the most enthusiastic BBS members, and that the show offered the bourbon newcomer an abundant treasure-chest of potential damascene moments. But those same moments, on the whole, were available last year. And indeed the year before.

The Whisky Show offers more open bottles to aqua vitae fans than any other weekend in the UK calendar. No one who visits, and tastes thoroughly, can be left in any doubt that American whiskey is as good as that from the stills of Scotland; the quality of US juice is clearly on show.

It is time that America’s increasing diversity was given similar limelight.

Words by WhiskyPilgrim

Tales of the Dusty (Part 2) - Old Grand-Dad

In the next instalment of my continuing ramblings about vintage bourbon, I’m not straying too far from the last. Old Taylor, Old Crow, Old Overholt and Old Grand-Dad have a lot in common aside from sharing 50% of their brand monikers.  Marketed as ‘The Olds’ all four have followed the same change in ownership through the years when National Distillers sold to Beam Suntory in 1987. Old Taylor eventually flew the coup in 2009 moving to Sazerac for a bourbon makeover, injecting a new lease of life into the Colonel whilst the others remained to inspect their ‘Old Crow’s’ feet in the mirror.

22117688_516370922042430_833610015_o.jpg

For every Dolly Parton though, there’s a Sean Connery wearing age like a boss and Old-Grandad is that brand and subject of my latest literary tribute. Today, OGD (let’s use its acronym from now on) is one of the ten best-selling straight whiskeys in the world and comes in three different bottling proofs: 80 proof, 100 proof (bottled-in-bond) and 114 Barrel Proof, all Beam juice and all stellar drinkers with the 114 up there as one of the best liquor store bargains around, punching way above its $25 price tag.

The brand itself was created by Raymond B. Hayden and named after his grandfather, Basil Hayden, Sr who was a well-known distiller in his lifetime and eventually honoured further with another Beam brand in 1992 when ‘Basil Haydens’ was created. The OGD label has remained relatively unchanged through the decades, maintaining a picture of Basil on the front of every bottle, representing the head of the Hayden family, their ‘Old Grand-Dad’.

It’s a brand that has stood the test of time, surviving 125 years from the birth of the Hayden family’s first commercial distillery in 1840 to present day. The first sale of the brand happened in 1899 to the Wathen family who later went on to create the American Medicinal Spirits Company which became the foundation for the National Distillers Group, producing ‘medicinal whiskey’ for sick patients during prohibition with operations in Cincinnati, Ohio and Frankfort, Kentucky.

It is the glut era in the 1970’s-early 1990’s that provides perhaps the greatest testament to the brand’s resilience. Through a period where the bourbon industry suffered extensively as a result of popular culture favouring trendier drinks, Old Grand-Dad was not something the ‘yuppie-du-jour’ would feel comfortable ordering at a bar. Whilst brands such as Four Roses and Jim Beam attempted to appeal to younger demographics with notably cringewothy advertising campaigns, the Mad Men of Old-Grand-Dad held steadfast and true to its loyal fan base assured in the knowledge that when America eventually woke up nursing their vodka fuelled hangovers, it will be Old Grandad-Dad they would come back to. Quality remained the focus and USP of Old Grand-Dad, with this advert from the 1980’s a shining example of product confidence:

22117912_516370968709092_413742934_o.jpg

It was at a tasting hosted by the JW Steakhouse in London with Tom Fischer of Bourbonblog.com where I caught the bug that has now developed into a terminal condition. We tasted (amongst many others) an OGD distilled in 1960 and bottled in 1968 that just blew me away and instantly rewrote the script that my palate had been working on with bourbon up to that point.

image003.jpg

On an evening of epic pours, this for me stood on the shoulders of giants and I needed to climb the proverbial beanstalk for more. I’ve since acquired a number of bottles from various years and can say with a confidence in line with their own, that Old Grand-Dad from the National Distillers era is some of the best bourbon you’re ever going to have the fortune of tasting. What makes it so special is that it has a flavour profile so unique that you could pick it out in a gallon of water. Deep, rich caramel, vanilla and baking spices leading into a butterscotch finish that you’d be forgiven for pouring over your breakfast pancakes. Having tasted most of the National Distillers iterations, it’s Old Grand-Dad that wins the beauty parade and I don’t think it’s any accident. The best juice simply went into the best brand.

Words by TheBourbonator

BBS Single Cask Number 2: Whistlepig

The first BBS barrel pick was chosen in tumult. A yammering, hammering, market-stall maelstrom of bellowed insistences and table-thumping certainty. Four bourbons, each one chalk and cheese to the next; two standouts and one obvious pick. A thundering rollercoaster with an inevitable destination.

We came to our individual conclusions about the second BBS barrel in almost utter quiet. Because it was close. My God it was close.

Burger & Lobster on Threadneedle street played host to our second barrel pick. Twenty 50ml bottles – four from each cask – were laid out upon arrival, alongside a full-sized bottle of the distillery’s flagship expression. Whistlepig 10 year old rye.

A smidge of background, for those uninitiated. Whistlepig are Vermont-based distillers, who, in the interim between their first spirit run and the emergence of the first bottle-ready whiskey from their casks, have been independently bottling rye from the distilleries of Alberta in Canada and MGPI in Indiana.

Age dated, and generally bottled at a respectably solid strength, Whistlepig have achieved cult status to the degree that their special releases have become some of the highest priced American whiskies on the market. Questions and issues to address in another post, perhaps. Today was about the contents of those 50ml bottles, and the first rye that BBS would ever put our name to. Only the second Whistlepig to be independently bottled in the UK, and the first by a private society.

So. To the pours.

Funny thing, but just as with the selection of the BBS FEW, Sample 1 was the dog of the day. Particularly when tasted next to the clean, fruity and vibrant Whistlepig 10 year old it felt a trifle dull; a little muted and underwhelming.

21733944_10101251267656986_857141901_o.jpg

After that, everything became rather difficult, because the following four samples were proof of Alberta’s credentials as perhaps the finest distiller of rye in the world, and of Whistlepig’s credentials as having a very, very good eye for a cask.

Sample 2 had an exceptional nose. There were those in the group who compared it to the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye … and went so far as to buy a double of the latter for frame of reference. The palate was a little quieter, but all told it was a mellow, mature and rather sophisticated number.

Sample 3 had me from first sniff. A proper, rip-snorting, full-blooded, no-holds-barred thoroughbred of a rye; the grain unabashedly bellowing its unique idiosyncrasies too loudly for alcohol to offer any distracting burn. As complete and intense on the palate as it was on the nose, and as balanced as you’d like, this was going to take some beating.

Sample 4 was all about the viscosity. A rye that nodded in the direction of bourbon, there was a fatness of nose and palate; an aspect of butterscotch that didn’t appear in the other samples and that pointed away from Canada and Vermont, and towards the plumper charms of Kentucky. A degree or two more of focus and intensity, and this could have been a winner. Alcohol crept up a little excessively though, and the balance of Sample 3 wasn’t quite there.

Finally, Sample 5. It shared many of the aromas and flavours of Sample 3, but the alcohol seriously overwhelmed; a little too much burn, especially on the palate, and a touch too much bitterness on the finish.

21729474_10101251267666966_590805526_n.jpg

After 10 minutes of silent consideration, number 1 was agreed to have been ruled out, with the over-vicious sample 5 shortly behind. There was a degree of horse-trading and beating about the bush, but eventually a section of the group admitted Sample 3 to be our favourite. Samples 2 and 4 had their proponents too though, and rightly so, and so the bottles once again were passed around the table for a second nosing.

Sample 4 was the next to be eliminated, at which point @london_liquor and @The_Bourbonator marched off in search of comparatory Van Winkle to set against the remainders (which makes something of a statement in and of itself!) Cases were made, opinions were offered, and eventually it was put to a vote. By a majority of around two thirds, Sample 3, at 57.8% abv, won the day.

The bottom line was this though: once Sample 1 had been eliminated, it wasn’t a question of a “wrong answer”, only of which was the “most right”. Our second bottling lives up to, and to this taster, pushes past our first, and I’m thrilled to say that many more will be available for whisk(e)y lovers to purchase. And they should do so. It’s terrific.

Two barrels down, and this really is just the start. The bottlings will continue, and BBS will only get better and better at picking them. Exciting times lie ahead. Watch this space.

Words by WhiskyPilgrim

'Ethical Auctions': Tackling Fakes, Flipping & Unfair Markets

By @LondonLiquor

As secondary market prices have soared in the past few years, all manner of whisky auction sites have sprung up to cater for demand. Major UK players with an international reach include Whisky.Auction, Scotch Whisky Auctions, Whisky Auctioneer, Whisky Hammer, Just Whisky, and Whisky-Online. Royal Mile Whisky's plans to enter the fray in the next month or so show the industry isn't going away anytime soon. Indeed, the UK has emerged as something of a global hub for online whisky auctioneering, no doubt aided by the strict restrictions on alcohol sales in the US.

The proliferation of whisky auction sites is not surprising: their commission-based business model can be lucrative. A Bitter Truth 24 Year Old Single Barrel Rye Whisky sold for £4600 in March netting the site a cool £1157 in commission and auction fees. Not an insignificant sum for facilitating the sale of a single bottle. With thousands of bottles going under the hammer each month, there's real money to be made.

And the benefits flow both ways. Auctions offer consumers the opportunity to buy and sell 'dusties' that haven't been seen on retail store shelves for years. British Bourbon Society members rave about 1980s and 1990s Wild Turkey obtained at auction.

So far, so good. But there are a few areas of concerns.  

First, are auctions doing enough to weed out fakes?

Second, do auctions offer a fair marketplace? Rumours abound of questionable business practices on certain sites, including credible claims that sale prices are artificially inflated to generate additional commission.

Third, are auctions doing anything to combat the 'flipping' of brand new whisky releases at many multiples of RRP? While not as obviously toxic as fakes and artificial price inflation, flipping is bad news for consumers who want to drink new releases as @The_Bourbonator explored on the BBS Blog back in January.

In sum, can consumers trust UK auction sites? Let's find out.

Fakes:

High profile cases of Scotch whisky and Wine forgeries have emerged all too frequently over the past few years and the past few months have shown that American whisky is not immune. In June 2017, an individual was revealed to have been purchasing empty bottles on eBay before refilling and reselling them on US-based Facebook groups. This hit the close-knit bourbon community hard as he had been a well-known figure and prolific seller, shipping over 1200 packages in 24 months with 77% of those packages containing more than one bottle. The total number of fakes is not known. Next time you see empties of Pappy Van Winkle and other hyped whiskies selling on eBay for over 100 dollars, you know why.  

So, it's risky to buy whisky from platforms that don't have robust anti-forgery measures in place. Auctions sites fortunately appear to be taking their responsibility to weed out fakes seriously. Whisky.Auction is one of several auction sites with a clear anti-forgery policy. Their discovery of a sophisticated whisky forgery operation in February 2017 suggests its being applied properly. Whisky Auctioneer's website also features a detailed policy on fraudulent whiskies that adopts a commendably cautious approach: "[w]hisky auctions are on the front line in combating whisky fakers and here at Whisky Auctioneer we frequently reject whiskies that are either not authentic, or that we simply deem questionable or problematic".

Taking a step back, whisky auctions can't win the battle against forgers alone. Upstream action is also urgently required: distilleries need to start doing more to combat fakes. Anti-forgery technology originally developed for the wine industry has fallen in price and it's hard to see why it couldn't be used on high-end whisky releases. Even Ralfy incorporated anti-forgery measures into the bottles of his excellent Port Charlotte Meteorite Single Cask release! BBS Members, bars and restaurants can also all play a part by destroying or defacing high-end empties.

Unfair markets:

All auctions expressly ban shill-bidding. To take Scotch Whisky Auctions' Bidding Policy as an example: "Sellers are expressly forbidden from bidding on their own bottles. Any bottles found to have been subjected to this will be withdrawn. Anyone found to be "bidding up" the prices of bottles will be removed from the site and banned from Scotch Whisky Auctions".

That's all well and good in theory but the devil is in the detail. Few auction sites provide any information on their business practices or the ethical guidelines by which the auctions are run. For example, most auctions don’t disclose whether employees are permitted to bid. But employee bidding raises clear conflicts of interest given the potential asymmetry of information between employees and other bidders.

Let's imagine a scenario where a bidder puts down £1000 on a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old and sets a 'maximum auto-bid' price of £1800. Maximum auto-bid prices are accessible to employees who place a bid of £1790, ostensibly because they want to purchase the item, but with the real aim of automatically increasing the maximum bid to £1800. The bidder ends up paying an inflated price while the auction pockets greater commission. Far-fetched? Not really. I've received credible information that at least one site turns a blind eye, to put it charitably, to this type of behaviour.

To get greater clarity on this, we contacted multiple auctions to ask whether appropriate safeguards were in place to ensure a fair marketplace. The responses were not reassuring. While conduct of the type mentioned in the above scenario would run contrary to internal Staff Codes of Conduct and, in particular, the prohibition on shill-bidding, employees were generally permitted, and in some instances actively encouraged, to bid on auctions despite having access to information on other bidders. BBS Members: be extremely wary of setting auto-bids.  

Royal Mile Whisky Auctions has chosen to do things differently. Its recently announced 'strict ethics policy' adopts a commendable position: "Staff of Royal Mile Whisky Auctions or any partner/subsidiary companies are not permitted to sell or bid on our auction website […] Bidders know they are bidding in a fair marketplace, and not competing against the company providing the auction service itself, or the staff that work for them. All bidders have the same information when choosing to bid". A refreshing approach.

Flipping:

Back in January, @The_Bourbonator noted that "auction sites voluntarily implementing a policy of not selling new releases for at least 12 months is perhaps wishful thinking but at least such a step would force flippers to take a longer term financial risk than they do today".

Well, take a bow Royal Mile Whisky Auctions: "Royal Mile Whisky Auctions will not accept for auction any limited edition whiskies within one year of their release […] Whisky fans know that prices are not artificially being driven up, especially those new releases being ‘flipped’ immediately after release". This is an excellent initiative that, once again, marks Royal Mile Whisky Auctions out. None of the other auctions have implemented comparable policies.

Ultimately, however, flipping is another issue that can't be tackled by auctions alone. It requires a co-ordinated response by distributors, retailers and consumers. There have already been a few steps in the right direction. Notably, Milroy's of Soho and Hedonism have both collaborated with Hi-Spirits to put on events where Pappy Van Winkle is sold at RRP provided the buyer immediately 'defoils' the bottle to prevent resell. You can read more about these initiatives, which took the form of a tasting raffle and a tasting competition (won by BBS' very own @MCRBourbon) on the BBS Blog.


So, we asked at the start whether consumers could trust UK auction sites. The jury is still out in my opinion, particularly in respect of those auction sites that fail to disclose their business practices and/or the ethical guidelines, if any, by which they operate. This enigmatic approach could ultimately backfire on the whole industry: why should consumers blindly stump up substantial commission and fees when it's not clear whether the market is fair?

Auctions need to become more transparent or they risk losing consumer confidence. While it's still very early days for Royal Miles Whisky Auctions, their decision to enter the auction market arena with a 'strict ethics policy' is a commendable development. Indeed, Whisky Auctioneer has recently made its Code of Ethics publicly available for the first time. Although arguably not as far-reaching as RMWA's, it's certainly a step in the right direction.

Here's hoping there's now a shift towards 'ethical auctions' across the industry, with a greater focus on transparency and self-regulation, before a couple of bad apples ruin it for everyone.

BBS meets Reservoir at the Lexington

Words by WhiskyPilgrim

Between us we’ve a pretty formidable “US whiskies tasted” rap sheet in the BBS. So it really isn’t often that almost none of us have tried any of the pours at a tasting. But on Saturday 29th July we trooped over to the inimitable Lexington for just such a rare occurrence.

The distillery behind these untasted whiskies was Reservoir, a craft setup based in Virginia. In fact it was complete serendipity that led to the event in the first place; BBS founding member @edkingUK happened to meet distiller Dave Cuttino in Gerry’s Wines and Spirits a while back, and, as is often the case with the BBS, one thing led to another.

Reservoir take an unusual direction with their whiskies, in that the flagships are all 100% mashbills of their individual grain. So they’ve a 100% wheat, a 100% rye, and a bourbon made from 100% corn. (Perfectly legal; what would make it a corn whiskey as opposed to a bourbon would be if they were using uncharred or refill casks).

David had generously added three limited edition treats to the lineup, and agreed to talk us through all the whiskies via skype.

Confession time: before the event I had my doubts. Especially of the wheat whiskey. I’ve been tasting a lot of craft whiskey lately, both for the reviews page, and out of personal curiosity. Quality and style has varied immensely, but the one relative constant was that young wheat-recipe kit was generally slightly unripe, unready, uncompromising stuff. So with no corn whatsoever keeping the wheat in check, how was Reservoir’s going to taste?

Well, first of all, let’s talk about Reservoir’s casks. They’re tiny. I’m talking miniature. Your standard bourbon barrel weighs in at about 53 US gallons, which in real money is about 200 litres. The casks at Reservoir are less than a tenth of that. What’s more they’re charred to within an inch of their lives. The upshot of which is that they flavour the whiskey at breakneck speed.

So, glasses filled and passed around: what did we think?

“Good grief.” That’s what I thought. “This is not the young wheat that I know and don’t love.” Instead, it’s super barrel-focussed, heavily intense on flavour and as clean as a whistle. No distracting spirit acetone here; this was a story of caramel and char and orange and brown sugar. Big on flavour; perhaps not the most complex beast in the world, but with a nice balance of the sweet and the savoury, and bags of intensity. Absolutely not what I was expecting, and seriously tasty.

On to the bourbon, where things continued to impress. A shade more one-dimensional than the wheater for my taste; sweet corn and caramel with not too many layers, but again that big flavour intensity and personality; again that influence of small casks. Opinion differed on the favourite, but I’d say three-quarters of the room were team wheat. Still, if you taste this bourbon without context, it’s a cracker.

The rye was the standout though. Reservoir make an intense style of whiskey, and when it came to the rye that intensity reached its peak. More of that orange; seemingly a theme with Reservoir – perhaps the result of their Armagnac still. Mainly though, this was about the fresh ryebread and nutmeg and caramel and marzipan. Pracically popping with flavour and spice, perfectly structured and supported by alcohol levels. Awesome stuff.

Being 100% “varietals”, David encouraged us to do a little of our own blending, and there were certainly those in the group whose pour of the day was a mix of the wheat and the rye. Personally I was more of a fan of them individually, but mixing was still a delicious exercise, and a great new direction for a whiskey tasting to take. Nicely reflected the spirit of experimentation and sense-of-fun that Reservoir seem to be about, and David’s enthusiasm for his whiskies was palpable and infectious.

The mixed-mashbill whiskies that followed were an intriguing bunch. Hunter&Scott, a wheat-recipe bourbon, was more along the lines of what I’d expected at the start. A little more acetone; less influence of cask. Some brioche and bananabread on the nose, but slightly overwhelmed by estery grain. Still tasty, and the palate had a nice, silken caramel aspect, but this one was probably my least favourite of the day.

Holland’s Ghost is a brand new release and a bit of a curiosity. Single barrel bourbon finished in a stout cask. It’s a collaboration between Reservoir and local restaurateur Mac McCormack, with the stated aim of replicating the flavour profile of Stitzel-Weller-era Pappy Van Winkle. Right. Well. Erm...

For my money they should do away with that rather ambitious mission statement. Holland’s Ghost was really excellent stuff on its own merits. By my mileage the most complex of the whiskies we tasted, though oddly felt less intense than the opening trio, despite being higher proof. There was a real creaminess to it, and even an aspect of chocolate orange crème to the nose. Perfumed stuff, with a wisp of smoke on the palate amidst the creamy caramel. Something to sit with in an armchair at the end of the day, rather than something with the directness and intensity of the rye or the wheat.

Finally the Grey Ghost, one in a series of special releases by the Reservoir chaps, for which they play around with mashbills a little. This one was 80% corn, 20% rye apparently. The most “classic” bourbon profile of the day, though with a strong rye accent of crunchy, woody rye. Lots of char influence and a delicious balance of sweet cinnamon and dryer nutmeg on the palate, all overlaid with thick caramel and that splash of orange.

In short, Reservoir’s lineup seriously impressed me. Most of the bourbon I’ve been tasting in the last month has been from craft distilleries, and this was right at the top of the tree. In fact I preferred it to every craft whiskey I’ve had this month besides Balcones True Blue Craft Strength. The rye and the Grey Ghost in particular were outstanding, and I was absolutely gobsmacked at how well they’d managed the wheat, but really the whole range was more or less rock solid. Hunter&Scott was the only one that I’d personally take or leave, but it certainly had some big fans among the group when preferences were compared at the end.

I don’t know how these whiskies are going to be priced when they arrive in the UK. I’d like to see the core range around the £50 per bottle mark, at which rate they’d be no-brainers. Peeking at US prices makes me think I’m being a little optimistic though – I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. But the bottom line is that I’m looking forward immensely to seeing them this side of the pond, and if you get a chance to give them a taste, don’t pass it up.

For what it’s worth, my order of preference was: Rye, Grey Ghost, Wheat, Holland’s Ghost, Bourbon, Hunter&Scott. Though I can’t speak for anyone else, and the Wheat and Holland’s Ghost are probably tied. Maybe someone needs to send me a bottle of each so I can properly make my mind up...

Huge thanks to David for staying with us so long on skype and taking us through the range. What he thought of the spectacle of 15 or so BBS-ers becoming increasingly “enthusiastic” on the strength of his whiskies I’ve no idea. But it’s always fantastic to meet the people behind the pours, and hopefully we’ll see David and Reservoir in the UK again soon.

A cracking tasting all round then, after which, in true BBS and Lexington fashion, we proceeded to behave responsibly for the rest of the afternoon, and nothing particularly noteworthy happened whatsoever...

On to the next one. Once we’ve all recovered from getting so responsible.

Thanks to David Cuttino, Reservoir, Stacey Thomas, the Lexington staff and the BBS founders for another cracking event.

Tales of The Dusty (Part 1) - Old Taylor

Words by The Bourbonator

There is a romance attached to anything old and whiskey is no exception. That point in which a bottle moves into a decade granting it the title of ‘vintage’ or to coin the colloquialism, ‘dusty’ is something that has created a sub-genre within the American whiskey community of which I have fallen for hook, line and sinker. It was a sample of Wild Turkey 8 Year Old 101 from the 1970’s a few years ago that peaked my interest. “This tastes fanstastic” I thought as I pondered why it tasted so far removed from today’s iteration. Though this was no isolated example, many of the bourbons of the 1970’s-mid 90’s I have tasted since have a richness in flavour that coat the palate with a paint roller soaked in butterscotch and now I’m smitten. What’s the point of being in love though if you can’t shout it from the rooftops? Like a Shakespearean play, I’ll be using this blog as my sonnet and regaling you with ‘Tales of the Dusty’ from my balcony in Verona laptop at home.

Part 1: Old Taylor

Old Taylor is a brand that has stood the test of time, changing hands a few times through the decades whilst remaining synonymous with exceptional bourbon. Colonel Edmund Hayes Taylor Jr. was a pioneer of American whiskey. A descendent of two U.S. presidents he had originally pursued banking and political interests before leveraging from his 16 year tenure as Mayor of Frankfort to revitalise a flailing whiskey industry that had little to no confidence from consumers due to lack of regulations around quality. He used his connections within government and the state senate to pass the Bottled-In-Bond-Act of 1897 mandating a higher set of standards that the industry would adhere to. Taylor started and owned seven different distilleries throughout his career, the most successful being the O.F.C. and Carlisle distilleries, the beginners of today’s Buffalo Trace Distillery.

The Old Taylor Distillery, located South of Frankfort was built by E.H. Taylor in 1887 and was known for being the first to produce one million cases of Straight Bourbon whiskey. It later became a showcase for bourbon making in Kentucky with an ornate construction made from limestone with castle-like turrets and beautiful gardens making it a tourist attraction to the public.

Colonel Taylor passed away in 1922 and National Distillers purchased the Old Taylor Distillery in 1935 where they continued to produce there until 1972 when It was sold again to the Jim Beam Corporation.  Beam continued to store and age bourbon in the warehouses there until 1994 when the space was declared surplus and remained empty for many years. After a few failed attempts by outside investors to reopen the now dormant and decaying distillery, it was eventually purchased in 2014 by ‘Peristyle’ who announced plans to restore and reopen the distillery under the name ‘Castle and Key’ whilst employing the first female Master Distiller since prohibition. Marianne Barnes, former Master Taster for Brown-Forman has set to work producing a native Kentucky botanical gin there to be released in 2018 prior to releasing their own Bottled-In-Bond bourbon.

Today, the Old Taylor brand is owned by Sazerac who purchased it from Beam Suntory in 2009 with distillation continuing at Buffalo Trace. The label on the bottles remain relatively unchanged and have retained that nostalgic aesthetic, though each one now comes in a presentation tube that prevents any of these from becoming ‘dusty’ again.

As you can see, whilst the storied history behind the label has remained unchanged, the juice has been subject to the interpretation of three separate distilleries. In my humble opinion, the bourbon was at its best at the original Old Taylor (Castle) distillery operated by National Distillers, exemplifying that  deep caramel and maple sweetness that causes even the hardened bourbon drinker to go weak at the knees. This was released at 86,  bonded 100 and a rare 101 proof all with an age statement of 6 years but as was typical of the glut era would contain distillate above its years.

If you find yourself in the boondocks of some far flung US town and stumble into a liquor store stuck in time with no access to the internet, look for those yellow labels, turn the bottle on its head and look for the year, is it pre-1994? Then look at the back label and locate the first 5 digits above the barcode, does it read ‘86259? If not, is there a distillery code DSP-KY-19 on the front label? If you can check off any one of these, it’s pretty much guaranteed that what you have in your hands is juice from the National Distillers era. Then buy a lottery ticket and make sure you’re not struck by lightning when you step outside.

 

Spotlight on Sonoma County

BBS co-founding father @london_liquor has been enthusing about Sonoma County whiskey for literally as long as I’ve known him. In fact, the evening I joined BBS – before I was even in the Facebook group – he was talking about the distillery, and the trip he’d taken there a month before. I tried the whiskies amongst hundreds of others at The Whisky Show, and even spoke briefly to Adam, the distiller, but beyond that I’d never really got to know the brand, and when BBS did a tasting back in October I was in France indulging my love of fermented grape juice.

But Sonoma kept coming up in conversation; both with @london_liquor and with other members of the group. Naturally I’d earmarked their bourbon for our month of reviews, but it struck me that this might also be a good place to begin a series of articles looking at some of the craft distilleries around America. One thing led to another, and last Sunday I found myself sitting down with five Sonoma whiskies and my little blue notebook.

Adam Spiegel founded Sonoma County Distilling Company in 2010. Back then they were one of 200 distilleries in the US. Which sounds like a fair few, but compare that to the 1,300+ operating in the country today. My God we’ve got a lot of articles to write… Sonoma itself is more known for its vino; in fact my first encounter with the name was on a bottle of Pinot Noir, but Adam’s all about the grains, bottling bourbons, ryes and a wheat whiskey.

A great deal of that grain is grown close by in California; even the idiosyncratic smoking of the malted barley over cherrywood is now done in nearby Petaluma.. There’s a good deal of positive information about sustainability on the distillery website, which is always nice to see; equally heartening is the lack of any fluffy marketing story. It genuinely seems to be an operation concerned with making the best whiskey they can in as sustainable way as possible.

The grains, once fermented, are double distilled in old-school alembics, heated by direct fire; a hot topic with scotch nerds at the moment. The upshot of this, in theory, ought almost certainly to be a less consistent product, but there’s a strong argument suggesting that direct-fired stills lend more character to the juice.

Which leads us to the tasting.

Before me I had the 2nd Chance Wheat Whiskey, The West of Kentucky Bourbon #1 and three ryes. But were they any good?

Photo Credit: East London Liquor Company

Photo Credit: East London Liquor Company

Well, the wheat was young. Rather overtly so. I tend to struggle with wheat when it hasn’t had much time, and whilst there were certainly plenty of vibrant flavours of green fruit and vanilla, the esters hadn’t properly had time to harmonise, and the cask needed longer to exert influence and flavour. Vanillas and honeys on the palate wrestled against pretty sharp alcohol, drying to a grain-focussed finish. Unquestionably good, characterful spirit, but a work in progress rather than a finished article for my money.

The bourbon, however, was very interesting indeed. It’s a mashbill of corn, rye and that Cherrywood-smoked barley, and the nose was a citrussy fruit-basket of caramel-slathered oranges, lemons and freshness. There was a woody smokiness that complemented the herbal rye very nicely indeed, before buttered corn and red berries joined in on the palate. The texture had lovely roundness; a velvety voluptuousness that offset the high notes nicely. Young, certainly, but crucially not immature.

Things got even better with the rye. First up was the standard Sonoma County. Pungent, earthy and spicy; no slouch in leaping from the glass. But what really dazzled was the mouthfeel. Unbelievably full-bodied and mouthcoating; and this is a 100% rye, usually the leaner, more medium-bodied cousin of bourbon. In fact, this is probably the first rye I’ve ever tried in which the spirit’s body was bigger than its flavour intensity … and it’s certainly not short on flavour.

I wasn’t quite so keen on the cherrywood rye. Still nice, but not quite scaling the heights of the “standard”. It’s a mixed mashbill, with elements of wheat and cherrywood-smoked barley, and personally I’d consider leaving the wheat out, as it reaffirms the youth of the spirit in a slightly distracting way. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still not bad, and it’s an interesting attempt to mimic the flavours of a Manhattan in a spirit. Just my tuppenceworth. But what do I know? And hey – anything that tastes like a Manhattan suits me.

Finally, the black truffle rye. Back to a 100% rye mashbill, but this one rested for a few months atop French black Périgord truffles. Nope, I don’t know either, but they sound expensive.

Photo Credit: East London Liquor Company

Photo Credit: East London Liquor Company

What a contribution they made. I tried a black truffle vodka last year that was utterly vile, but here the rancio notes of the truffles matched the signature earthiness of Sonoma’s rye spirit. Certainly they were the primary flavour, but they didn’t dominate; the rye was still clear and characterful. That stunning mouthfeel was back, and the flavours, amplified by truffle, were all the more intense. If anything it made the whiskey seem older than its years; there were flavours that reminded me more than a little of mature red burgundy. If you don’t like truffle, this definitively isn’t for you, but if you’re open to trying something a bit different then this might be very much your jam.

A mixed bag then, but one with far more positives than negatives. My gripes were largely confined to the wheat whiskey; I think it’s a very rare wheat whiskey that can provide interest in youth, but perhaps I’m just an unsympathetic audience. I think Adam and Sonoma are genuinely doing something interesting and idiosyncratic; they’re very much making their whiskies their way. The rye, in particular, is a must-try for the mouthfeel alone; I can only imagine how good it would be with an extra two years in cask.

1,300 distilleries is a heck of a crowded market, even considering today’s whiskey boom. The sad truth is that many are likely to be short-lived, especially given struggles with pricing. That’s one area that’s tricky for Sonoma; certainly in the UK they’re priced upwards of £50 a bottle, which isn’t cheap.

That said, I do hope that Sonoma survives and continues to thrive, and properly tasting the standard and potential of what they’re producing makes me almost certain that they will. The quality of their bourbon, and especially their house rye, shows that they do the staples very well, and their innovations elsewhere are only likely to keep getting better and better. I’d love to see them make a single malt using their cherrywood-smoked barley, and my inner wine-nerd would be fascinated to see what happened to that rye in an ex-Pinot Noir cask … but that’s up to Adam!

If they can keep the prices steady as the age of their whiskey creeps up, Sonoma County should be on to a winner. And so should consumers of American whiskey.

Fair enough @london_liquor – good tip!

Word by WhiskyPilgrim

BBS reviews a month of bourbon...

Our reviews section is looking a little sparse at the moment.

“A little sparse” might even be being kind. It currently sits at a grand total of four; a batting average of one every two months, with the first having been written on 5th December. Which feels a little unambitious for the British Bourbon Society.

What’s more, the four reviewed are hardly thick on the ground; ready to be scooped off shelves by eager punters keen to make good on newly-read information. Three are upwards of £150 (two of them by miles) and the fourth isn’t available in the UK. Which is hardly consumer friendly.

So this month we’re changing all that. Starting today we’re reviewing 31 different bourbons*, from 31 different distilleries*. (Yes, the asterisks denote that we will be cheating slightly on both counts. But only slightly.)

We’ll be covering a range of prices, availabilities, ages, and mashbills, from the dizzyingly rare to the on-offer-in-Asda. Which hopefully means that there’ll genuinely be something for everyone. The only two rules are that they’ll all be at least 51% corn, and they’ll all be distilled, matured, and bottled* in America.

No scores I’m afraid; you’ll have to actually read the words, though hopefully the quality and value verdicts will be pretty clear. And, as with all things review-y, caveat lector and caveat emptor.

Enough of the Latin already. Let’s taste some bourbon.

BBS tastes seven whiskies from Luxco with Woolf Sung

Words by WhiskyPilgrim

The good ship bourbon just keeps gaining pace in the UK. So it’s no surprise that new brands keep heading across the Atlantic for their share of sterling. The Luxco raft isn’t entirely new, per se, but their whiskies are certainly rare beasts this side of the pond, newly given a push by Woolf Sung. I’d only previously tried one of them, so it was with great curiosity that I headed to Greek Street on 3rd July for a tasting led by Milroy’s alumnus and Woolf Sung ambassador Angus Martin.

First up was the value end of their offering. David Nicholson is a brand that has been knocking around for a long while; owned by the Van Winkle family until it was purchased by Luxco in 2000, and therefore afforded a measure of the lustre associated with that most fêted of bourbon names.

The two we were trying were the rye-recipe Reserve, and the wheat-recipe 1843. Both cost somewhere around the £40 mark from the most obvious channels.

The Reserve was an enigma, with a decent, if not spectacular, nose that improved out of recognition on the palate. High rye and very enjoyable indeed. I’d have no hesitation in picking a bottle up.

The 1843 was very young. I’ve had this discussion with a few BBS members now, and I’m yet to be convinced that a wheat-recipe bourbon can avoid tasting a little young and “spirity” without at least 6-8 years of knitting itself together in a cask.

This was rather borne out by a side-by-side tasting of the old 1843, with its 7 years age statement. Instantly there was a gulf in aroma class; where the current entity features fairly basic cereals and caramel over a slightly distracting estery character, the 7 year old comes across as far more the unified whole. Richer, fuller and more harmonious in every respect. A slight estery character did return on the finish; 7 years is hardly ancient, after all, but whilst your mileage may vary, my own view was that the previous 1843 is in a different league to the NAS offering.

Next up, Bower Hill Reserve Rye. Which absolutely screamd MGPI. All the herbs (“dill,” said Angus) and spice and pine and florals associated with that distillery. If you’re a fan of that style (I am – immensely so) it’s mouthwatering stuff.

But then a shock. A couple of us had been chatting, and had assumed it was the usual 95% rye recipe. Until Angus revealed that it was in fact 51% rye, and 49% malted barley. Which begged the question: where was the barley? Everything about the aroma screamed rye. Screamed “very high rye.” At a real stretch, the palate was perhaps a smidge more voluptuous in body than one might encounter on a 95%, but the seemingly total absence (or possibly masking) of any barley character was astonishing.

A revelation then; and a very tasty one. But here’s the rub: it reminded me of Bulleit 95. That’s not a bad thing – Bulleit’s a cracking rye. But I can pick up Bulleit on offer at Asda for £22. At £70+, Bower Hill’s rather ambitiously priced. Worth seeking out by the glass rather than leaping straight into a full bottle purchase perhaps. After all, it may be exactly your cup of tea. But at the RRP, there’s an awful lot of competition – Pikesville 101 jumps to mind, for example – so caveat emptor and all that...

Which leads fairly neatly into the final trio of the evening. Blood Oath Pact No.2 was overlaid by a nice splash of red fruit; had a tasty, spicy rye core and a certain amount of complexity. Yellowstone 7 years old was very good indeed; unquestionably the pick of the bunch; whistle clean, hugely well-defined flavours of classic middle-aged bourbon (though I’m not sure how much of its wine finish showed...) Bower Hill Cask Strength was a brawny, nutty, woody, muscular beast of a bourbon; the sort of thing you want slid to you across a frontier saloon’s bar.

Very tasty, impressive stuff. Yellowstone in particular drew great admiration from the majority of those assembled (indeed one or two BBS members were practically cooing!) But it is worth bearing in mind that all three of these whiskies are priced more or less in line with Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection (at RRP). All things considered, I’d probably take Yellowstone over the last few editions of Eagle Rare 17. But I’d still be a little hesitant before buying a bottle. There are a lot of excellent bourbons and ryes that are considerably more affordable than the Luxcos; to my mind they’re overreaching themselves ever so slightly.

That said, I enjoyed every whiskey I tasted on 3rd July. They’re a diverse bunch with several points of difference, and they’re more than worth seeking out by the glass. Your position may differ where opinion on pricing is concerned; I only offer my tuppenceworth as a slight caution.

Thanks to the BBS, Milroy’s, Angus Martin and Sebastian Woolf for a very enjoyable evening.

 

NAB: Tasting Canada’s Pike Creek 10 year old Rum finish, J.P. Wiser’s 18 year old, and Lot 40 Rye.

Words by @WhiskyPilgrim

Something genuinely massive happened in the whisky world on 13th June, and hardly anyone seemed to notice.

In fairness, there wasn’t much fanfare. Three new whiskies popped up on The Whisky Exchange’s website. Pike Creek 10 years old Rum finish, Lot 40 Rye, and J.P. Wiser’s 18 year old. The significance? They are a trio of Canadian whiskies, and their appearance this side of the pond marks a watershed moment in world whisky appreciation and opportunity.

Considering it makes more than any nation other than Scotland, Canadian whisky is terribly poorly understood outside of its homeland. Relative to its size, it barely gets a passing mention in most whisk(e)y tomes; the only time it really made UK headlines was when Jim Murray named Crown Royal’s Northern Harvest Rye his “Best Whisky in the World.” To which the near-universal response was “nonsense”.

For a clearer picture of the Canadian whisky scene, the only obvious comprehensive resource is Davin de Kergommeaux’s “Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert”. And as far as the UK consumer goes, good luck getting hold of it. I’ve had nothing but grief with my copy; a cautionary tale featuring 3-month delays, accidentally leaving it in coffee shops, and dropping it when fleeing a mugger. Hey ho. Perhaps he picked it up and educated himself.

The upshot is that misconceptions and sweeping statements surrounding Canadian whisky are rife. “It’s full of stuff that isn’t whisky” and “it’s all a load of rubbish” being the main generalisations. On top of which you have whiskies being called “rye” when they are mostly made from corn, myriad brands whose name bears no relation to the distillery that made them, and no real stylistic “signposts” such as mashbills to help guide the unwary consumer through profiles. (Canadian distilleries tend to mash the grains separately, blending them together as new spirit or mature whisky.)

Add to that the fact that Canada keeps most of its best juice “in house” and it is perhaps not surprising that Canadian whisky doesn’t command the legions of UK devotees enjoyed by Scotch or Bourbon.

A shame. Because Canada unquestionably boasts some of the best distilleries in the world, capable of making premier league whisky in a fascinating, unique and inimitable style. And three of the most well-known (over there) are Pike Creek 10, Lot 40, and J.P. Wiser’s 18yo.

Which brings us back to the 13th June.

More or less as soon as they appeared on TWE I hit the “buy now” button. Partially from excitement at finally seeing them, and partially because they are extremely handily priced. £25 for Pike Creek. £30 for Lot 40. £40 for J.P. Wiser’s 18 year old. Try and find another 18 year old whisky – from anywhere – for £40. I dare you.

So, American whiskey fans, the big question. What does the stuff North of the border taste like? And does it compare to the juice we’re more familiar with?

Pike Creek 10 year old, Rum finish. 42%ABV

Intriguing nose. Rum makes itself known straight away, adding a splash of tropical fruit and bite. There’s also a perfumed wood aspect, and a spicy – almost botanical – lift. Rye is a presence, but not an overwhelming one. It’s one of those noses in which there is no single dominant characteristic. Medium intensity.

Even more rum-like on the initial palate. Viscous, oily and sweet. Brown sugars and caramels. After which a firmness, reminiscent of blended Scotch, creeps in. Wheat? Tasty stuff, if a little short and simple. Think a Scotch blend, but in caramel and rum sauce.

J.P. Wiser’s 18 year old. 40% ABV

Takes a while for the nose to get going. Doesn’t leap from the glass. Needs time and warmth, but patience is rewarded, because what emerges is terrific stuff. Woody, with cigar tobacco, cedar, leather and musky aftershave. A touch of pine too – really nice balance of the deep and the lifted.

Big fat, oily palate – surprisingly full-bodied for 40%. Flavours come in a couple of waves; sweeter than the nose initially – this is where the brown sugar and caramel makes itself known – after which rye spices, wood and musk return. Unctuous texture, but those deep, woody, chocolatey, nutmeggy flavours feel slightly muted and shortened. I’ve never wanted a whisk(e)y to be another 6% stronger more. (I promise that’s not just me being an alcoholic...)

Lot 40 Rye Whisky. 43%

Boom! Rye! Bounds from the glass, but not in a sharp, MGP-esque style. This is elegant and floral (crazy floral) – full of violets and gently lifted. A slight candied orange rind too, and a little sawn pine-wood. Most intense nose of the trio by miles – don’t need your nose anywhere near the glass – and beautiful stuff.

Palate effectively a continuation, thought the rye becomes spicier and extra-lip-smacking. Would make a fascinating side-by-side with Bulleit. Switched on, poised and lean; still very floral indeed, and with a big hit of rye bread. Probably my favourite of the trio, and quite simply spectacular value.

Conclusions

 My initial reaction on tasting this trio was: tasty, but I want more engine. More oomph. The Wiser’s, in particular, seemed crying out for another 6% - those flavours are outstanding, but it feels as though someone’s turned the volume down. I was reminded of how I feel about Dalmore; another whisky with a thick, unctuous texture that seems to cruise along at 40%, dropping tantalising hints of just how special it could be.

But here’s the thing. The whisk(e)y industry is not built on high ABV, fasten-your-seatbelt stuff. Those might be the whiskies venerated online and flogged on the secondary market for megabucks, but they aren’t what bring people to the whisky table initially.

What really impresses me about these whiskies is how much they manage to deliver at such a modest alcohol level and, more significantly, such a modest price. J.P. Wiser’s, and particularly Lot 40, have plenty to offer the long-in-the-tooth whisky drinker, whilst also being supremely approachable, delicious whiskies for new consumers to get stuck into. As for Pike Creek, I can’t think of a blended Scotch on the market that can touch it for the price. And with its element of sweet new oak it makes a nice bridge in style from America to Scotland too.

These are serious, important whiskies. They are a platform from which Canadian whisky can grow in the UK. And I want more. Gooderham&Worts Four Grain was one of the most exciting whiskies I tried at Whisky Live in April – I want to see that on UK shelves too. Alberta distillery make some of the best rye in the world – let’s get some of that over here, and not just in overpriced WhistlePig bottles. And that’s before I’ve even mentioned the Single Malts popping up in distilleries across the country. I want to taste them all.

Hiram Walker, the distillery behind the trio I tasted, recently announced that they would be launching some special editions in the autumn. Amongst others, a J.P. Wiser’s 37 year old and a cask strength Lot 40 12 year old. I remember reading an article about them with longing, tempered by the disappointing certainty that none of those whiskies would make it to our shores.

Now let’s not get ahead of ourselves. They probably still won’t. In real terms, Canadian whisky has just dipped its toe into the UK market. There’s a long way to go before we start seeing special editions. But let’s hope that the three new arrivals are a statement of long-term intent. The Canadians are coming to Britain. And you need to get to know them.

I can’t wait.

  

Jack Rose Dining Saloon, Washington D.C.

Words by @JordanHarper

There are 2,700 whiskies on Jack Rose Dining Saloon’s menu, which means that the first big challenge for any patron is choosing what to drink first. 

A mixture of FOMO and choice paralysis meant I spent about 20 minutes flipping through the menu before settling on a pre-fire Heaven Hill from the 1980s.

Even after all that thought, I got it wrong.

A couple of minutes after ordering, one of the many knowledgeable staff approached our table:

“Sir, if you’re willing to spend $5 more, there’s a Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond from about five years earlier that’s one of the best whiskies I’ve ever tasted from there.”

And that’s when — like every smart wine drinker with access to a sommelier — I stopped trying to be clever and decided to hand my fate over to the experts who know their way around that enormous list better than I ever could.

Starter

Heaven Hill ‘Old Style Bourbon’, 100 Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Bottled in Bond circa 1982.

Genuinely one of the most perfectly balanced whiskies I’ve ever had the pleasure to taste. A rich and complex nose, nice little kick as it hits the tongue before hitting 90+ on every classic bourbon flavour note. Caramel, vanilla, butterscotch, charred oak and a bit of spice.

I could have climbed into the empty glass and lived there happily for a long time.

Having just arrived a couple of hours earlier on a long haul flight from London, I wasn’t just there to drink whiskey, and the food at Jack Rose is almost as good as the drink. Deciding to opt against a traditional glass of wine with my venison and to stick with whiskey, I sought the advice of resident expert Chris Leung.

Main Course

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2015

I’ve never really paid that much attention to Old Forester. I’ve no good reason why, it’s just never drifted onto my radar. That all changed earlier this year when I got hold of a bottle of their 1920 Prohibition Style KSB — I’m not sure there’s a better non limited-release bourbon on the market right now.

So when Chris recommended I pair Old Forester’s actual limited release product — the 12 year Birthday Bourbon — with my venison, I jumped at the chance to try it.

Compared to my pre-fire Heaven Hill starter, this was a whole different experience. Brighter, more vibrant and full of bruised bananas and high notes. I was dubious how any whiskey would pair with a fairly delicate venison dish, but it worked an absolute treat (particularly with the parsnips, oddly enough). One to note for the future.

Also to note: I’m not sure Birthday Bourbon is actually any better than Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style — that stuff is superb.

Dessert

Willett ‘808' 14yr old barrel proof (126.6) bourbon

On to dessert — beignets with chocolate sauce and dulce de leche — and on to as good a reason to visit Jack Rose as any…

Jack Rose has an obscene number of Willett bottlings, thanks to owner Bill Thomas’ long standing relationship with the Willett Family Estate, he’s been picking barrels there from back long before they were one of the bourbon world’s most coveted single barrel releases.

The ‘808’ is a stunner. Like pouring liquid salted caramel over your tongue — holding its 63.3% alcohol with no trouble at all, warming but full bodied, syrupy and rich. Its 14 years in the barrel have given it a colour like a varnished mahogany bar top, and it tastes like a couple of those were ground down and added to the mash. There was probably complexity here, but I was too busy melting into my chair to notice.

If you like Willett, you need to go to Jack Rose.

Digestif

High West Rocky Mountain Rye 21yr

While my colleagues sipped decaf coffee, I opted for a slight change in gear: a rye digestif.

Presented with three options by Chris: a dusty Old Potrero; Lock, Stock & Barrel 16; and the High West. I’m a big fan of High West’s core stuff (less so their barrel finishes) and was keen to try the oldest whiskey they’ve put out.

Sourced from Barton, Rocky Mountain Rye is described on the bottle as ‘whiskey distilled from a rye mash stored 21 years in reused cooperage’ — the reused bit meaning they can’t legally call it an American Rye Whiskey, which mandates new barrels only. This means we have a pretty unique whiskey here, not only because there’s not much rye lying around that’s this old, but that by using second or third fill barrels, the whiskey is going to be less heavy on the oak and retain a bit of character after a couple of decades.

I half wonder if someone at Barton didn’t accidentally dump this into used barrels, because I can’t think of a good reason that they’d do this on purpose, given the regulations around American whiskey (and the state of the industry 21 years ago). Maybe someone was drunk. Maybe it explains why it sat there for 21 years.

Either way, I really enjoyed Rocky Mountain Rye, a perfect end to the night and a nice bit of spice after all that smooth, smooth bourbon. It reminded me of Thomas H Handy — which is both a compliment to Handy, aged just 6 years, and to the brightness retained in this 21 year old — full of baking spices, sweet wood, a silky smooth mouthfeel and seamlessly integrated alcohol. More than anything else it’s just a smooth and enjoyable dram, very sophisticated and well balanced.

1982 Heaven Hill Old Style Bourbon, BIB · Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2015 · Willet KSB 14 yr 126.6 proof · High West Rocky Mountain Rye 21 yr

To be anywhere near Washington DC and not visit Jack Rose would be a big mistake if you’re a fan of whiskey. The staff are incredibly friendly and helpful — no matter what your level of spirit knowledge — and the food is pretty great too. Thoroughly recommended.

Bonus DC tip: A1 Wines & Liquor, 1420 K St NW. A pretty great selection of whiskey for a downtown liquor store and solid prices on pretty much everything I saw on the shelves. I spent about half an hour chatting to Eric and came away with a bottle of Rebel Yell Single Barrel 10, Lot 40 Canadian rye and Bowman Brothers Small Batch; and more importantly a bit more knowledge and wisdom on the subject of American whiskey.

Cheers!

First Look at Kaleidoscope, SMWS' New London Outpost

Words by @LondonLiquor

Central London is well served for great whisky bars as a glance at the BBS Bar Map demonstrates. Head out East, however, and there aren't too many inspiring options (with a handful of notable exceptions such as Black Rock and Bull In a China Shop).

Enter the Scotch Malt Whisky Society's new Kaleidoscope Bar located in Devonshire Square (close to BBS-favourite Pitt Cue) behind Liverpool St Station. It's still in the soft launch phase but initial signs are positive. The selection of SMWS Single Casks is unsurprisingly vast and pricing isn't too extreme, particularly with the 20% discount available for SMWS members.

Kaleidoscope also hits other key BBS Bar features: a range of tasting flights, interesting cocktails (although Penicillin is a striking omission), a decent beer selection and, perhaps most importantly, knowledgeable and unpretentious staff. Being situated underneath Mac & Wild also ensures that the snack menu is excellent with a Scotch Egg that's hard to beat.

The American whisky selection is currently tiny but that may change: SMWS has bottled several American whiskies in the past so fingers crossed some of those make an appearance! It had previously been announced to some fanfare that Dave Broom would be curating a non-SMWS whisky collection at the bar but this seems to have fallen by the way side for the time being - hopefully it appears in the future. 

BBS will be back at Kaleidoscope in a few weeks once it's fully opened to see if it warrants a coveted spot on BBS' Bar Map!

Celebrating LMDW's Sixtieth Anniversary with Blanton's Single Barrels and Pappy Van Winkle

By @LondonLiquor

On 20 March 2017, BBS hosted a unique tasting event at Milroy's of Soho: four Blanton's Single Barrel releases bottled exclusively by La Maison Du Whisky to celebrate their Sixtieth Anniversary. This was to be followed by a much anticipated Pappy Van Winkle raffle ... but first the Blanton's tasting.

All four Single Barrel releases had been bottled on the same date (15 August 2016) at the same ABV (60%) from barrels that had been stored next to each other on the same rick (15) in the same warehouse (H). In other words, the barrels were practically identical to all intents and purposes. But how different would they taste? Following a brief introduction to the Blanton's range and its unusual history from Simo and @londonliquor, as well as a couple of drams of the Blanton's Original and Gold releases to get warmed up, we got to find out.

Now, if BBS had learned one thing from selecting the first BBS FEW Single Barrel a few days earlier, it was to expect significant flavour variance. And we were not disappointed. Although all four displayed the core characteristics of Blanton's that has made the range a standout BBS favourite, different elements stood out across each barrel, particularly once a few drops of water had been added to temper the heat of the alcohol. More than one member was seen desperately searching the LMDW website to see if their favourite barrel was still in stock only to be disappointed!

After the tasting was all said and done, it was time for Milroys and BBS' much anticipated Pappy Van Winkle raffle. Now, there's no easy way to allocate rare releases. The fact that such releases are often immediately flipped on online auction sites for multiples of their RRP only complicates the situation further.

Thanks to Milroy's support, BBS was able to do something a little bit different to help fulfil one of our core aims: making sure that whisky goes to people who will actually drink and enjoy (rather than flip) it. The premise was simple: everyone who attended the tasting had their name put in a Glen Cairn. The first three names pulled out by Simo were offered the chance to buy a bottle of either Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20 Year Old, Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15 Year Old or Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year Old for RRP. So far so usual. The twist was that each winner was asked to remove the foil from the bottle there and then to prevent any temptation to sell it. BBS was fortunate enough to have dinner with Preston Van Winkle a few days after the event who turned out to be a huge fan of our anti-flipping concept.  

In true BBS spirit, the winner of the Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15 Year Old immediately shared the bottle round the room so that everyone could see whether the hype matched reality. Having not been a fan of the 2015 release, I was blown away by the 2016 release – an epic bourbon.

Thank you to everyone who attended this event. Milroy's next tasting (the 1792 range) and Pappy raffle will take place on 18 June 2017! Sadly, it's already sold out.

BBS Awards 2017

The British Bourbon Society was proud to announce the winners of our inaugural Awards at BBS' First Anniversary Celebrations on 22 April 2017. We received a huge number of votes from BBS members and the results really speak for themselves. Congratulations to all of the 2017 Award winners!

Best Bourbon:

Honourable Mention: Rebel Yell 10 Year Old Single Barrel

Best Rye: 

Best Barrel Proof:

Best Allocated Release: 

Honourable Mention: Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15 Year Old (2016)

Best NAB (Not a Bourbon):

Honourable Mention: Kilkerran 12 Year Old.

Best Whisky Bar: 

Honourable Mentions: Black Rock, The Lexington

Best Whisky Shop: 

Honourable Mention: Gerry's

Best Online Retailer:

BBS 1st Anniversary

Words by: The Bourbonator

The BBS train has offered up a wild ride over the past twelve months with more highlights than the Orient Express and a promise of even more beautiful vistas to come. We could think of no better way to celebrate our one year anniversary than with a monumental opus of a bourbon tasting at Milroys of Soho, the filling station where it all began, to be held on Saturday 22 April 2017. 

Our first anniversary tasting attempted to answer a question posed by many, “was bourbon better back then?” In preparation for the answer, we were able to source the question with a number of old bottles from Old Spirits Co. to pit against their modern day equivalents for a side by side tasting in a battle of ‘Old vs New’. The bottles entering the Thunderdome were:

Four Roses Yellow Label 1970’s VS Four Roses Yellow Label 2017

Evan Williams Black Label 1974 VS Evan Williams Black Label 2017

Wild Turkey 8 Year Old 101 1970’s –Wild Turkey 101 2017

Blantons Single Barrel 1988 – Blantons Single Barrel 2016

Old Taylor BiB 100 proof 1960 and Old Taylor 86 Proof 1984

In our quest for the truth, we were joined by over 25 BBS members as well as representatives of the European Bourbon and Rye Association, over from Zurich for the weekend on the return leg of our ‘bourbon cultural exchange program’. It's fair to say that the EBRA team had tasted more than their fair share of American whiskey and had a well-informed opinion on all things whisky. Whilst we all dream of driving that DeLorean on a whiskey shopping trip to 1984, their heaving bunkers are proof that they’d gotten there first!

Two by two, the whiskies were introduced and poured for the room to get their palates around with a show of hands determining which was preferred. Whilst it was not unanimous, the majority voted in favour of ‘old’, which did not come as a surprise to me. My dice might have been loaded from the start with the knowledge that older bourbons from the 1960s and 1970s are generally accepted to have been some of the best ever produced although it was interesting to see that, with the benefit of tasting side by side, this was a view supported by the majority of the room.  

What made bourbon better back then? This is still very much up for debate as over the years mash bills have changed, distilleries have closed (or burnt down), processes have become more industrialised, climate change has had an affect on water, wood and ageing and of course, time in the barrel all could have contributed to the taste that seems impossible to replicate in the whiskies of today. What is agreed is that due to the glut era, where supply outstripped demand by some margin, entry level bourbons most likely contained well aged stock over and above even the statement on the label. Today, with demand as high as it is, age statements are being removed from labels to ensure that distilleries are only obliged to bottle at the minimum 2 (or 4 years if a straight bourbon) which is most likely the contributing factor in the difference in quality. To be clear, it does not mean that the product today isn’t good, I would not have the obsession I have if it wasn’t, just that the product, from a taste perspective back then was on average nicer to drink. 

With the tasting concluded, it was time to deliver the first annual British Bourbon Society awards, given to BBS's favourite whiskies, retailers and bars as voted for by our members.  We'll have a post on our blog about that very soon but, if you can't wait, check our twitter or Instagram pages for the deserving winners that we were privileged to honour. 

Ten Brown Bottles

Words by @JordanHarper

If you could only have 10 bottles of (American) whiskey in your home bar, what would they be?

One of my favourite wine bars in London — 10 Cases — has a brilliant but simple premise: they only ever have 10 cases of each of their 10 red and 10 white wines for sale. When they sell out of one, they replace it with 10 cases of a completely new wine. As someone who has always favoured constantly enjoying new experiences over the comfort of a ‘favourite drink’, this approach appeals to me.

As a fan of American whiskey in all its forms, I have some fifty bottles of bourbon, rye and ‘other’ whiskey from the USA in my drinks cabinet, and it’s getting unwieldy, not to mention stifling me with the paradox of choice. What would happen if I took the 10 Cases approach and shrank it down to just 10 bottles? Not necessarily whittling down to the rarest or most expensive, nor trying to compile a comprehensive ‘lesson’ in American whiskey, but the ones I’d buy if I were building a collection right now (April 2017).

As an added constraint (and to make it more than just a vanity project), I’m going to try and conjure up a list of 10 whiskies available right now in the UK for a total price of £500 or less for a ’10 Cases’ refresh of my imaginary home bar.

Note: prices have been rounded-up in some cases for brevity, are subject to change based on availability and (apart from number 7) are generally available from all good whiskey specialists.

1. Elijah Craig 12, £32 (Amazon)

Heaven Hill, 47%

A long, long, long time favourite of mine. Probably the whiskey that got me into American spirit in the first place many years ago. Full bodied, sweet, charred oak, vanilla, toffee, a little bit of spice; the very epitome of what makes whiskey from the US unique. At 47% ABV you’re getting some serious bang for your buck, too — this is the biggest bargain in the bourbon world for me and is incredibly versatile.

Get it while you can though, it’s been discontinued in the US (to be replaced ‘Elijah Craig small batch’, no age-statement) but for now is still widely available in the UK.

Drink: When you just need a big old glass of chewy barrel juice.

2. Michter’s Barrel Strength Rye (£85, Nickolls & Perks)

Michter’s Distillery, 54.6% (varies per batch)

The resurrected Michter’s distillery make some seriously good juice, but none of it matches the bang-for-your-buck of their barrel strength rye. This stuff is a phenomenal example of what rye whiskey brings to the table and I can’t get enough of it. Spicy, but full of caramel and vanilla notes, a touch of orange and cherry and a huge finish.

It’s a little tricky to get a hold of as it’s a limited release, but their regular single barrel rye (42.4%, £55 from Milroy’s) is a more than adequate replacement if you can’t find it. There’s probably only one rye I’d take to my desert island over this one, but that‘s not exactly easy to get hold of.

Drink: When your palate is feeling adventurous and like you deserve something special.

3. Wild Turkey Rare Breed (£52, Master of Malt)

Wild Turkey, 56.4% (barrel strength, varies per batch)

I find Wild Turkey whiskey has one of the most distinctive flavour profiles in the bourbon world. A high rye mashbill, low barrel entry proof (like Michter’s) and a real talent for consistency means that you’re always getting a smooth, butterscotch, vanilla, maple, cinnamon and ever so slightly spicy whiskey when you buy WT – and their Rare Breed is a fine example of what they do so well, blending a mix of 6–12 year old whiskies to create their signature flavour.

If you wanted to save £20, Wild Turkey 101 is an only slightly diluted version of their barrel strength expression (50.5% ABV), keeping all of the classic WT flavours but with slightly less body and mouthfeel.

Drink: After a hard day at work and you want something spicy and punchy to knock some sense into yourself.

4. Eagle Rare 10 (£37, Master of Malt)

Buffalo Trace, 45%

 

Less than £40 for a ten year old bourbon is something not to be sniffed at, and when that whiskey comes from Buffalo Trace — where over 200 years of distilling expertise produces some of the best and most sought after whiskies in the country — then it’s a no-brainer.

Eagle Rare 10, like Elijah Craig 12, is a classic example of Kentucky bourbon — rich and full bodied, full of maple syrup, orange peel, oak and vanilla — and is my go to bottle when I’m too tired to scan my cabinet and just want a glass of something I’m going to enjoy. They also have a lively single-barrel program (with Single Barrel selections available in BrewDog and The Cocktail Trading Company in London), which without fail I’ve always enjoyed even more than the off the shelf juice.

Drink: When you’re feeling content, and need a nice, straightforward dram to see the night off.

5. Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond Straight Rye (£35, Nickolls & Perks)

Heaven Hill, 50%

 

If Elijah Craig was the whiskey that piqued my interest in American spirits, it was Rittenhouse that made me realise why rye whiskey was very much the spirit of America (pre-prohibition).

There’s not a lot of subtlety to Rittenhouse 100, for £35 you get a big spicy rye punch, full of cloves and a hint of citrus. So full bodied and packed with oak and vanilla it’s like a mouthful of bourbon-soaked peppercorns. Pretty much the Elijah Craig of rye whiskies – almost improbably great value and there aren’t many ryes better at twice the price in this author’s opinion.

Drink: when you fancy a manhattan, or just being warmed into a night of excess.

6. Four Roses Small Batch (£33, Milroy’s of Soho)

Four Roses, 45%

 

Ahh, foam bananas doused in whiskey and set alight! Four Roses limited edition bourbons have become extremely sought after, and their method of blending up to ten recipes (5 yeasts, 2 mash bills) is now somewhat legendary. Given all that geekery, it’s easy to forget that at the more available and affordable end of the scale, with their Small Batch (and Single Barrel) offerings, you can pick up pretty much the same flavours but at a fraction of the price.

FRSmB is a blend of four of the ten ‘recipes’ (details here) to create a smooth, rye heavy but incredibly sophisticated and well rounded bourbon that’s quite savory — think honey on toast (and the aforementioned foam bananas doused in whiskey). It’s the John Lennon to Elijah Craig’s Paul McCartney.

Drink: When you’re feeling like something a little different, or want to show your friends that not all bourbons are created equal.

7. FEW Delilah’s 23rd Anniversary (£62.50, The Whisky Exchange)

FEW Spirits, 50%

Image Credit: The Whisky Exchange

I’m a huge fan of FEW Spirits. For a young distillery, it’s genuinely remarkable how much depth and flavour Paul Hletko and his team are getting out of their barrels. I’m beginning to think that they’re concealing a time machine on the shores of Lake Michigan somewhere.

FEW’s regular Bourbon and Rye offerings are pretty great, but this very limited release to celebrate the 23rd anniversary of Chicago institution Delilahs really is something else. My first attempt at tasting notes were that it tasted like dark chocolate digestive biscuits and spiced toffee. It’s absolutely delicious and super-limited, but if I was restocking the bar now, I’d be making sure I grabbed one of these before they’re all gone.

Drink: When you’ve switched the Jazz for Blues and are seriously considering polishing off an entire bottle.

8. Blanton’s Gold Edition (£65, Master of Malt)

Blanton’s 51.5%

Blanton’s is a funny old beast. For the most part, every whiskey on this list is cheaper and more easily available in the US. Blanton’s have a very unusual distribution arrangement: thanks to the brand being owned by Age International (but distilled by Buffalo Trace) and being Big in Japan, they are focused heavily on the export market.

As such, bottles like Blanton’s Gold (and their Straight From the Barrel release) are almost impossible to get a hold of in the US — and when they are available are generally more expensive than buying them abroad — so for once, it pays to be a bourbon fan outside of America!

Essentially, Blanton’s Gold Edition is just an extra selective version of their Single Barrel release (widely available everywhere). It’s a lot drier and more tannic than a lot of other bourbons, but packs a HUGE oaky punch as a result. Along with a ton of vanilla and toffee, and a richness that’s almost overwhelming. This is a last drink of the night kind of bourbon, but it really is pretty great.

Drink: When you just need that one last hit before bedtime.

9. Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey (£45, Milroy’s of Soho)

Buffalo Trace, 45%

Image credit: Gear Patrol

A crisp and spicy New Orleans style rye, a little more subtle and aromatic than Rittenhouse, unsurprisingly a great choice if you’re making a Sazerac cocktail.

You could argue that you only really need one of this or Rittenhouse in your line-up, but I think having them both here really highlights the versatility of this style of spirit.

Drink: When you’re making pre-prohibition cocktails, or fancy something spicy but gentle on your tastebuds.

10. High West Double Rye (£43, The Whisky Exchange)

High West blend of MGP + Barton 46%

And finally, something a little bit different. High West’s double rye is a blend of a sweet 16-year-old 53% rye whiskey from the Barton distillery and a much fresher and spicier 2-year-old 95% MGP rye. This results in a delicious blend of old and new: with oak and age bringing a bit of sophistication to a more vibrant younger whiskey.

It’s a great example of the interesting stuff happening in the US and a great value dram to have in your cabinet. It’s not always easily available, so grab a bottle while you can.

Drink: When you fancy appreciating the spirit of American adventure and rebelling against the age-statement chasing fanboys (and girls).

That’s it! In summary, then ten bottles you’d find hitting my shelf first if the burglars robbed my spirits cabinet blind, are:

  1. Elijah Craig 12 (£32)
  2. Michter’s Barrel Strength Rye (£85)
  3. Wild Turkey Rare Breed (£52)
  4. Eagle Rare 10 (£37)
  5. Rittenhouse BiB Straight Rye (£36)
  6. Four Roses Small Batch (£33)
  7. FEW Delilah’s 23rd Anniversary (£62.50)
  8. Blanton’s Gold Edition (£65)
  9. Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey (£45)
  10. High West Double Rye (£43)

That’s just under £500 for four ryes, four bourbons and one brilliant blend – if I never had to drink an American spirit outside of that selection again, I’d still spend the rest of my days drinking some really great whiskey.

 

BBS & FEW Barrel Pick Artwork

A FEW weeks ago, BBS picked its first ever Single Barrel Release. You can read about that here.

A special bourbon deserves a special bottle so we got straight to work designing a unique label to celebrate this BBS milestone. We'll leave you to judge how it worked out.

We hope you're all as excited as we are - stay tuned for further details of BBS Release One over the next few weeks! One thing we can say is that this bottle is going to be incredibly limited, with the barrel expected to yield around 100 Cask Strength bottles. We know that not everyone will be able to get one, but don't worry, we're confident you'll be able to try it at our launch event(s) later this year.

Blind Tasting my way to Pappy Van Winkle 

Words by @MCRBourbon

The headline of Hedonism Wines' newsletter a few weeks back caught my eye: ‘Pappy Van Winkle Giveaway and Blind Tasting’. Not the kind of e-mail any BBS member could ignore, even on a Monday morning! Hedonism had received a small allocation of the Van Winkle whiskies, a single bottle of the 12, 20 and 23 year-old expressions, and had come up with a fun way to allocate them. The rules were simple: a blind tasting of five American whiskies at their store in Mayfair, London for £65. Each participant would be asked to identify the distillery, ABV, age, US state of distillation and mash bill. There would be three tasting sessions and the winner of each would get to pick a bottle of Pappy, with first choice going to the person with the highest score. 

If you are a reader of the BBS blog, you probably already know a fair bit about the Van Winkle whiskies and may have even come to one of BBS' Pappy events. For anyone who doesn't, 'Pappy' is amongst the most sought-after bourbons on the market today. While retail prices are fairly reasonable, bottles are almost impossible to find in shops and frequently can only be found on the secondary market auction sites for insane prices. Having been fortunate enough to own various Pappys over the years, I've long considered the 23 Year Old to be the best. Finishing my last bottle of 23 Year Old was a mixed experience: saddened to see it go but also grateful to have experienced an incredibly unique and complex wheated bourbon. The chance to win another was too good to turn down. 

Being that I live in Manchester, over 160 miles North of London, I booked a ticket for Hedonism's Saturday afternoon blind tasting session with a day return train. I also blagged my bourbon partner in crime, and frequent bandit of my top shelf, Jack into coming along for the ride. We would make a day of it and meet up with a couple of BBS buddies in the Lexington afterwards for a few pours, before getting the train back up North.

Training

As soon as I'd signed up, I began training for the event ... for two gruelling weeks. Picture, if you will, a Rocky-style pre-fight preparation montage, Eye of the Tiger belting out, my incredibly supportive girlfriend pouring me mystery whiskies from my collection and me, doing my best to guess what they were. Initially, my results weren’t great. I could mostly get the distillery but pinpointing the exact whiskey was hit and miss. Sometimes, I was miles away. I did what every aspiring champion should do: I drank more whiskey. My results improved to the point where I was correctly identifying multiple bottles blind. I was ready.

And then, a minor setback. The night before the tasting a good friend had come back up North. We went out in Manchester for a few scoops and then went back to mine for a few more. I don’t know how I did it but I somehow managed to get myself on the train with seconds to spare. A microwaved cheese and tomato panini that was the temperature of molten lava acted as a well needed stomach sponge. Somehow, Jack and I made it to Hedonism in Mayfair with time to spare.

The Event

First impressions of Hedonism were good. Despite being a frequent browser of their website, I had never visited the store. Nothing could have prepared me for the ridiculous selection of every type of wine and spirit imaginable. American whiskey-wise, there were unicorns galore. A 1990 Van Winkle 17 Year Old, Michter’s 25 Year Old Rye, and Martin Mills were just some of the legendary bottles sat on the shelves.

Ben Murray, Hedonism’s Spirits Buyer, hosted the tasting. It quickly became apparent that Ben was as passionate and knowledgeable about American whiskey as they come and a thoroughly nice bloke too. Nine of us sat around the table as Ben explained the rules. Ten points were available for each of the five whiskies. If you guessed the exact whiskey, you would get maximum points for that round. The previous night’s high score stood at twenty. I had half expected the pours to be run of the mill, easily obtainable, mid to low level pours but I was wrong! After nosing the glasses for a few seconds, I realised that irrespective of whether or not I won a Pappy, this tasting offered great value for money. And so the blind tasting began. 

Whiskey One: a no-brainer: a Buffalo Trace wheater all day long. Struggling between Van Winkle 12 and Weller 12, I opted for Weller 12, which it proved to be.

Whiskey Two: I had it down as barrel-proof and around twelve years old so I guessed at Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. This was Four Roses Small Batch 2015 LE. I’m still quite disappointed that I didn’t get it right as it’s one of my favourite bourbons of recent years!

Whisky Three: I struggled with. I could tell it was a rye, not massive proof and quite old so I guessed Sazerac 18. This was High West Rocky Mountain Rye 21 which I had never tasted before so I thought my guess was OK. 

Whisky Four: I knew straight away, Parker’s Heritage Malt. So distinctive and it made sense to be on there for variety.

Whisky Five: I was miles off. Initially, I thought it was an old bourbon but then I got some typical MGP rye notes. There was a ton of orange peel and some of the distinctive ‘pickle juice’ I’ve seen people mention with MGP rye. I was torn between Willett XCF or WFE Rye and ended up marking it as an eight year Willett Rye. It was Jefferson’s Presidential Select 21 so a massive fail on my behalf.

The whiskies varied at each session and there were some ridiculously good bottles there. Ben was kind enough to send a picture of the final line up. 

FB_IMG_1489962327635.jpg

The scores were announced and I was the winner on the day with 28 points, leaving me in first place. Jack came a respectable second with 20 points. I was guaranteed at least a Pappy 20 year and if nobody beat my score in the last session that evening, the 23 year was mine. After leaving my mobile number with Ben, we went to the Lexington to meet the proprietor and BBS legend Stacey, where we continued to drink some fantastic bourbons.

Victory!

On the train home, I checked my phone to see that I had a voice message. It was Ben asking for a call back. My hands were trembling as I returned the call, eager to know how I had done. I was informed that nobody had managed to beat my score and the pick of the bunch was mine! A Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old was mine. 

 

At a recent Van Winkle tasting, Preston Van Winkle mentioned that Hi-Spirits, the new UK distributor, were working hard to ensure that Pappy only went to people who would actually drink, rather than flip, it as per the Van Winkle family’s wishes. This is an initiative that BBS wholeheartedly supports. Indeed, we recently held a Blanton's tasting and Pappy Van Winkle raffle with Milroy's of Soho. If you won the raffle, you could buy Pappy at retail price – the only rule was you had to take the foil off in the store to immediately stop any temptation to flip. Similarly, one of the rules of the Hedonism competition was that the Pappy bottle would be defoiled before being sent out to customers.

At around midday today, my bottle arrived in nuclear bomb-proof packaging and parafilmed to high-heaven. I poured myself a nice glass as soon as I got home. Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old is just as fantastic as I remember it and I feel incredibly lucky to have won this bottle. It will be thoroughly enjoyed by me and some of my good friends over the coming months.